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Smith Center girls escape Norton in MCL semis

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Smith Center High School girls' basketball team faced multiple obstacles in Friday's Mid-Continent League tournament semifinals against Norton. The Lady Red didn't rebound or shoot well. Senior Sydney Benoit, the team's best player, had four fouls and had to sit for extended periods. Smith Center was down three entering the fourth quarter.

"Things were stacked against us pretty good," Smith Center coach Nick Linn said.

Backed by Benoit, Smith Center opened the fourth quarter on a 10-0 run and collected a 41-36 victory at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The Lady Red, defending MCL tournament champions, won their sixth straight league tournament contest and 30th straight regular season game. Smith Center, ranked No. 4 in 2A, improved to 10-0 and was to play Ellis in the championship Saturday. The victory marked Smith Center's fewest points in the 30-game run.

"We all did not want to lose the game, so we all started kind of to pick it up," Benoit said. "We all wanted to be in the championship game."

Benoit is one of several returning Lady Red players who has improved this season. Last year, Smith Center went 22-1, one of Linn's best teams in his 22-plus years with the program.

But the Lady Red had two season-ending knee injuries to Torie Fuller and Trenna Cox. The Lady Red lost in the sub-state championship. This winter, Benoit, Cox and seniors Alexis Ryan and Briana Dietz lead a new group of Lady Red.

"Wanted to create an identity and still prove that we could be competitive," Linn said.

Benoit has raised her scoring average from 13 points as a junior to 21 this season. She finished with a team-high 18 on Friday. Linn calls her "our floor general" and "our leader."

"We lost a lot of players last year, like big roles, like rebounding," Benoit said. "I think that we all just had to step up."

Cox has tacked on nine points, a team-high 4.1 assists and 3.3 steals a contest. She missed all of track season with the knee injury and wore a brace for part of volleyball.

"You can tell when she is running sometimes, she favors it sometimes, but I think it is close to normal," Linn said. "We have to have her be normal for us to be successful. She is that important our team."

"I am just really thankful that I am able to do it," Cox added. "A lot of girls would probably be scared. I love basketball, and I love my team."

Ryan, known more for her defense, averages four steals per game. Because of Benoit's foul trouble, Ryan has to step up into a larger role.

"Alexis Ryan, she had her best game of the year tonight because she had to step it up," Linn said. "I thanked her after the game tonight."

She finished with seven points and helped keep Norton off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter until 2 minutes, 23 seconds remained in the game.

"My mom made the comment that she is like a gnat, always in your face, always trying to get the ball," Cox said. "She is a really good defender."

Norton dropped to 8-4 under first-year coach George Rossi, the longtime assistant coach under Kevin Jilka, who retired from basketball before this year. Senior Tawni Griffey paced Norton with 21 points.

Just 18 seconds in the fourth quarter, Smith Center closed the game to one point on a play inside from Benoit. At the 5:42 mark, the Lady Red took the lead for good when Benoit stole the ball and took off for a basket.

Forty seconds later, Cox drove down the right side and missed, and junior Colbie Decker grabbed the rebound and scored -- one of the few inside shots for Smith Center. Decker hit another shot shortly after to extend the lead to 35-30. Decker, averaging 10.4 points per game, finished with just those four points as the Lady Red missed multiple shots close.

"Over the course of the year, we have made those shots," Linn said.

Defensively, Smith Center changed from its trademark full-court press and went into a half-court set. The Lady Red allowed just three field goal attempts for the first six and a half minutes of the quarter. Overall, Smith Center has allowed just 33 points per game, a better mark than last season's 35.4.

"I didn't expect to see that change in the fourth quarter," Linn said. "The only change that we made was to play off the ball and play half-court man. That pressure didn't do a whole lot of good anyway."

Ellis 63, Osborne 40

A big second quarter led the Ellis girls to its first semifinal win in the tournament since 2010, and the Railers were seeking their first tourney title since 2007. Freshman Alexcia Deutscher and senior Bailey Hensley led the way for Ellis, putting up 15 points each. Junior Kaleigh Soneson also added 10 points.

Osborne, which moved into Saturday's third-place game against Norton, was paced by 13 points for junior Caityn Miller.