Despite loss, Iola girls carry high hopes into postseason

Iola's girls fell behind early to Pioneer League champion Santa Fe Trail Thursday, but also battled back twice in later stages, giving head coach Kelsey Johnson optimism the Mustangs can make some noise in the upcoming Class 3A playoffs.

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February 23, 2024 - 3:18 PM

Iola HIgh's Zoie Hesse, center, lunges for the among a cluster of Santa Fe Trail defenders Thursday. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

CARBONDALE — Thursday’s 50-34 loss to Santa Fe Trail was in many ways a microcosm to Iola High’s basketball season, head coach Kelsey Johnson agreed.

“Yes, we had too many turnovers,” Johnson said. “Yes, we got off to a slow start. But there were a lot of good things tonight.”

Iola (7-13) made things interesting against the three-time defending Pioneer League champion Chargers with a 9-0 run to pare a 19-8 deficit to two points late in the second quarter.

The key was matching Santa Fe Trail’s aggression at both ends of the court, Johnson said. 

“Santa Fe Trail is a great team,” she said. “But we were able to put some pressure on them, and scared them a little bit. We came out tough. We just didn’t respond well in the third quarter.”

A 21-4 Charger run pushed Santa Fe Trail’s lead to 40-21 by the start of the fourth quarter.

Iola’s Keira Fawson scored twice early in the final frame and Reese Curry drained a shot to pull to within 49-33.

But a pair of 3-point attempts down the stretch rimmed out that would have been a big help.

“The last time we played these guys, we backed down,” Johnson said. “We get on our heels, we’ll turn the ball over and get smaller than what we are.

“Tonight, we did not back down.”

Johnson praised the work of Fawson, Alana Mader and Curry for their willingness to work inside for scoring opportunities, as well as reserves like Kaysin Crusinbery, who sparked Iola’s first-half rally with her defense and rebounding. Crusinbery’s steal and layup was part of the 9-0 run to get Iola back in the game.

“She didn’t get to play much Tuesday,” Johnson noted. “For her to come out with fire and confidence really helped us out tonight. That’s what I told the girls in the locker room. To contribute, you don’t just have to score. There are plenty of other things we need you to do well. All those girls battled and fought back. That’s what I like to see.”

Fawson scored 12, Mader eight and Curry six to lead Iola’s scoring attack.

Kaelee Washington scored 19 and Braegan Buessing 16 to lead Santa Fe Trail. Buessing eclipsed the 1,000-point scoring mark in the first half. She was honored after the game.

Iola High’s Reese Curry pulls, left, away from Santa Fe Trail defender Whitney Herren Thursday.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

IOLA will travel to Humboldt at 7 p.m. Tuesday to take on the Lady Cubs in the opening round of the Class 3A Substate Tournament.

The teams played once already, with Humboldt prevailing, 63-55, in the War on 54 Midseason Tournament.

“They’re a fundamentally sound team who’s always hard to beat,” Johnson said. “They’re aggressive. Their post players aren’t tall, but they’re strong.

“For us, it’s a mentality thing, to see if we can get over the hump,” she continued. “I think I’ve got the right group to do it. A lot of people don’t expect us to win, but we’re right there. I like what we’ve created this year.”

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