JENKS — Claremore coach Mike Hughes knew he had a timeout remaining, but he didn’t want to use it.
The risk of a turnover would increase exponentially on the ensuing inbound pass, and his team had already committed 22 giveaways. With less than 10 seconds remaining and the Lady Zebras trailing No. 1 Will Rogers by three, losing another would be crushing.
He instead opted to entrust the game to senior star Hailey Grant. She already had the ball in her hands after corralling a missed Lady Ropers free throw, so it was an easy choice.
“We had the ball in the hands of our best player, and I feel like it’s so much easier to get open in transition than trying to run a set play, calling a timeout and letting them regroup and reset their defense,” Hughes said. “We got a great look, and if we drew it up, that’s the person we would’ve had shoot it.”
Grant, hounded by a full-court double team, managed to overcome the pressure before releasing a desperation 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded, but the shot drifted wide left.
With that, Claremore’s upset bid of the top-ranked Lady Ropers—along with its state tournament aspirations—fell just short in a 31-28 decision in a Class 5A East Area consolation championship at Frank Herald Fieldhouse in Jenks on Saturday afternoon.
“I was just thinking I had to get a shot off,” said Grant, who finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds. “Make or miss, we had to get a shot off. That was the only way we could tell if we were going to go into overtime or if the game was going to be over."
The Lady Zebras held a two-point lead late in the first half, but Raegan McQuarters intercepted a pass and drained a 3-pointer from about 25 feet at the buzzer to give the Lady Ropers a 17-16 halftime lead.
Using the momentum from that shot, Will Rogers scored the first seven points of the third period to push the advantage to eight.
Grant and fellow senior Cloe Dennis responded diligently, though, regaining the lead for Claremore at 26-24 with a 10-0 run that carried into the fourth quarter.
“We respected them coming into this game, but we knew that anything can happen at this time of year, and if we played hard and made a couple of shots, the game could’ve turned out different," Grant said. "We didn’t really stress it too much, we just knew we had to relax and have fun because it could’ve been our last game, which it was.”
However, the Lady Ropers (24-3) had one more answer, and it was strong enough to earn them a second-straight trip to the Class 5A state tournament.
The turnover bug bit the Lady Zebras once more as the Will Rogers tandem of Nakia Cullom and Quinnae Love took advantage of six late takeaways to score seven of the game’s last nine points in the final 3 minutes, 40 seconds to secure the victory.
Cullom led the Lady Ropers with 14 points and 8 rebounds while Love contributed 8 points and 6 boards.
“Their pressure was giving us trouble, and as a staff, we were worried about that,” Hughes said. “Had we been able to handle the pressure a little better, I think we’d probably be getting ready to go to a meeting tomorrow for a state tournament berth.”
Free-throw shooting down the stretch also stunted Claremore down the stretch, squandering an opportunity to tie the game at 29 with 44 seconds remaining as part of their 2-of-5 performance from the line in the fourth quarter.
Will Rogers didn’t fair much better, making only 7 of 15, but all of them came in the final frame. The Lady Ropers also grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, many of which led to free-throw opportunities in the waning moments. They were held without a field goal in the final 12 minutes.
In comparison, the Lady Zebras managed only five offensive boards despite outrebounding Will Rogers 31-28 overall.
Despite those unfortunate shortcomings, Hughes beamed with pride over his squad’s impressive showing and ability to force the No. 1 team in Class 5A to the brink of elimination.
Claremore held the Lady Ropers to their lowest-scoring game of the season, nearly 32 points under their average of 62.8 points per game. Their previous low came in a 42-35 loss to Adair in the Tournament of Champions on Dec. 26.
“We told (our girls), ‘Nobody thinks we can win this game,’” Hughes said. “The only people who thought we could win were us. The character they showed playing the No. 1-ranked team and taking them down to the wire and having a chance to win it speaks volumes about who they are as people. Every kid in that locker room is going to be successful because they have the character and mentality to never quit and never give up.
“Looking at where we were at the beginning of the year versus where we are today, I can’t say enough. I won’t second-guess their effort because they gave us everything they had.”
The Lady Zebras finished the season one game above .500 at 14-13, their best year since 2016-17 (15-13). They won nine of their last 13 games after starting the season 5-9.
According to Grant, that midseason turnaround is all thanks to the watchful eyes of Hughes.
Hughes, the third head coach to lead this group of seniors, took over for the departed Whitney Jones following the 2018-19 season, and his impact was almost immediate.
“He honestly changed all of our lives for the better,” said Grant, who will play collegiately for Missouri Southern next season. “He took Claremore basketball to a place we didn’t know we ever could, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for coach Hughes, and neither would any of these other girls.
“We really do owe it all to him because he’s taken Claremore basketball and has done something amazing with it.”
The Lady Zebras will lose most of their scoring production (Grant, Dennis, Maddie Hardage) to graduation, but they’ll also return some key role players who showed signs of stardom throughout the season.
Kylee Ohman, Grace Bump and Rachel Yewell could easily become the new faces of the program come December, and they will only be juniors.
They certainly have the backing of Grant, which will serve as reassurance heading into the offseason.
“I think they have a chance to be really, really good and shock a lot of people,” Grant said. “Even though most of them haven’t got to have varsity minutes this year, they’re going to get the same thing we all got. They’re going to get in there and get a lot better. If you would’ve seen most of them at the beginning of the season, you would’ve never thought they’d even be on varsity.
“But they work hard and are talented, and I think they’ll be just fine.”