KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- March Madness is underway.
The Cottey Comets started the insanity Friday by knocking off 14th-ranked North Central Missouri College in the NJCAA Region 16 semifinals, 55-48.
The fourth-seeded Comets played as close to a perfect game as can be expected -- jumping out to an early lead, slowing down North Central's explosive offensive attack, and making key plays in big moments to knock off the top seed in the region.
"We had a gameplan," Cottey head coach Dave Ketterman said after emerging from the celebrating locker room. "We were going to take away their stuff and force them to react to our stuff."
The response was more attune than when asked seconds after the final buzzer sounded how they managed to pull the region's upset of the season. All Ketterman could utter was, "I don't know."
But Ketterman did know. Throwing a triangle-and-two defense at the Lady Pirates (23-8), left the favorites in a funk for much of the first half and Cottey jumped out to an 8-0 lead.
The Comets (12-10) went into halftime with a 23-19 advantage despite struggling themselves on the offensive end, missing four shots from within four feet of the basket.
The two players who were able to score were freshman guard Kerri Shanks and freshman post Lacy Leonard.
Shanks hit three 3-pointers in the first half and Leonard managed a few buckets in the paint as the duo teamed to score 19 of the club's 23 first-half points.
The low offensive output wasn't new to Cottey as they struggled in their two regular season meetings with the Lady Pirates, scoring only 17 and 12 points in the first half of two losses.
Defensively it was a stark contrast from those two defeats, as the Comets allowed at least 35 points in the opening 20 minutes of each of the first two games against North Central.
Cottey's defense played inspired in the opening frame, limiting the explosive duo of Amber Vandevender and Shelly Renneson to a combined 11 points.
The Comets came out equally determined in the second half, starting with a 10-2 run to open a 33-21 cushion with 16:26 to play.
The teams exchanged baskets over the following five minutes, with freshman Kayla Orear dropping one from downtown with 11:10 left, giving Cottey their biggest lead of the ballgame, 41-28.
That's when North Central started to make a run. Amber Jordan had a pair of buckets sandwiched around a three-point play by Brittany Parker and in a matter of 70 seconds the Cottey lead was trimmed to six.
Maggie Wigness halted the run with a 10-footer from the left side to make it 43-35.
From there the game slowed down, with North Central scoring one minute and Cottey answering the next. Carissa Mitchell got her only points on a jumper near the right elbow for a 45-37 lead with 7:08 to play. A layup by Ashleigh Houdyshell with 5:23 remaining made it 47-38.
Ketterman said those three scores killed any momentum North Central had gained, since the points came from players the Lady Pirates didn't expect to get on the board.
"That's three players that don't score for us," he said. "You have to have somebody else make a play. It puts a little doubt in their defense, 'Do I go get her or not?'"
After Houdyshell's layup North Central managed a prolonged 6-0 run to make it 47-44 with only 2:30 on the clock.
Leonard, the third-leading scorer in the nation averaging over 23 points, halted the run with a short jumper in the lane. Jordan scored again to make it 49-46, but Cottey made six of seven free throws in the final minutes to seal the upset.
"When you get into championship tournaments, it's a matter of making stops and making shots," Ketterman said. "We did that."
Ketterman credited the team's fast start with giving his players the belief that they could win.
"We didn't make every shot, but we were able to get out on them early and score, so we had a little confidence," he said.
Shanks echoed Ketterman.
"I thought it'd be tough," Shanks said. "They're really fast and can score in a hurry. When we led early I realized that we could (win)."
Shanks went 5-for-9 from the outside, scoring a game-high 17 points. She said she didn't feel completely comfortable shooting from outside before the game.
"I wasn't making anything," she said. "But when I don't make anything in warmups, I usually do in games."
Leonard scored 16 points for the Comets, despite constant double- and triple-teaming from North Central. Orear also got in double figures with 12 points, 10 of them in the second half.
Orear was particularly clutch from the line, going four-for-four on free throws in the second half.
"I think we've got 10 heroes," Ketterman said. "It was a full team effort."
Notes: North Central had won the two regular season meetings handily. The Lady Pirates won Jan. 24, in Nevada, 79-62. Feb. 4, in Trenton, North Central won 65-46 ... Cottey led the entire game ... The Comets played St. Louis Community College-Meramec in the region championship game Saturday. Meramec had topped hosting Penn Valley in double overtime Friday. Meramec beat Cottey twice in the regular season.