COLUMBIA, MO. • The Kirkwood girls basketball team found itself in a familiar place Thursday — without Lauryn Miller on the floor.
A standout junior forward who missed most of the season with an ACL injury, Miller has been a major factor in recent weeks.
But as the Pioneers trailed Francis Howell by double digits at Mizzou Arena in the first state semifinal appearance for both programs, Miller headed to the bench early in the second quarter with a pair of fouls.
By the time the first half ended, it was clear Kirkwood could cope just fine, going on a momentous run that resulted in a 66-55 victory.
The Pioneers outscored Francis Howell 26-4 over the run for a 34-23 halftime lead that wasn't seriously threatened in the second half.
“I looked at (Miller) at one point and asked her if she was ready to go,” Kirkwood coach Monica Tritz said. “She said 'Nope, they're on a roll.' We let them play, so that's why she continued to sit.”
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Kirkwood (26-4, No. 2 in the STLhighschoolsports.com large-schools rankings) won its 12th consecutive game and advanced to play Kickapoo at 2:40 p.m. for the Class 5 state title.
Francis Howell (27-4, No. 2 LS), which had a 16-game win streak snapped, will play Liberty (26-4) for third place at 11 a.m. Friday.
Senior center Rachel Fick scored eight of her game-high 19 points in the first quarter as the Vikings opened a 17-8 lead. In the second quarter, Kirkwood turned to a ball-hawking defense that forced five turnovers.
“We wanted to clean up a little on our defensive execution,” Kirkwood senior guard Jordan Roundtree said. “Fortunately when we play good defense, it turns into good offense."
Kirkwood's run started with a layup by senior forward Ashley Hundley with 6 minutes and 57 seconds left in the half and ended with a layup by freshman guard Madison Buford with 42 seconds left before halftime.
Francis Howell senior guard Dani Berry said Kirkwood's strength was all too familiar. Kirkwood, with Miller out injured, claimed a 60-59 victory Dec. 26 against Howell at the Visitation Tournament.
“They are more of a transition team and they know how to play without her,” Berry said. “They've played without her for a majority for the season. So their game plan had to change for her. When she came out, they didn't struggle at all.”
When Miller returned to the court in the second half, the Pioneers didn't struggle, either.
She led four Pioneers in double figures with 18 points, with 14 of those in the second half as Kirkwood pounded the ball into the paint to protect its lead. Miller also added nine rebounds as Kirkwood enjoyed a 37-23 edge on the boards.
A pair of free throws by Fick pulled the Vikings within 52-45 with 4:47 to play, but Kirkwood responded immediately with free throws by Hundley and never led by less than nine the rest of the game.
"When we played Howell at Viz, we learned that they're just a team that's not going to lie down," Roundtree said. "We knew they were going to fight and that they have a lot of seniors out there and they didn't want to go home without a ring. We knew, start to finish, we were going to have to play to put them away.”
Carly Harper added 12 points for the Vikings and Berry had eight. Kirkwood got 13 points from Roundtree, 12 from Hundley and 11 from Wallace.
After showing they could take a punch, the Pioneers are one victory from their first state championship in basketball.
“I think it's any basketball player's dream and, coming to Kirkwood, this has been my ultimate goal,” Miller said. “To do it with Coach Tritz and all of the girls I played during the summer with is just an amazing feeling.”