ST. LOUIS—When girls basketball coach Monica Tritz walked into the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Mark Twain Gymnasium for a MSHSAA Class 5 state tournament quarterfinal game, she knew that it could be for the last time in her illustrious career as leader of the Lady Jaguars girls hoops program.
Earlier in the year Tritz announced she would be retiring at the end of the season she could spend more time with her family.
Her retirement is going to have to wait for two more games, as Tritz and her Lady Jags survived a major scare on Saturday, but eventually held off Francis Howell Central for a 51-45 overtime win that will send West to the Class 5 Final Four for the first time since 2010.
"I'm so excited that I'm going to get two more games," Tritz said. "And my daughter is excited that she'll get to swim in the hotel pool. That's all she cared about, so we'll all get to have some fun."
Even with all the smiles after the game, Tritz admitted that she wasn't having any fun during the game. Zumwalt West fell behind early and took nearly the entire game to come back against a Howell Central team that sure seemed destined for its own trip to Columbia.
The Lady Spartans proved themselves formidable right from the opening tap when senior Sharese Jones found herself wide open and drained a deep 3-pointer to give Howell Central its first lead of the day.
Zumwalt West took a brief lead at the start of the second quarter, but Howell Central answered right back and even led by five points at halftime.
"Our girls came ready to play," Howell Central head coach Brian Ricker said. "We wanted to be aggressive and attack them right away, and that's what the girls did. And they did a great job of it."
Howell Central built its lead to as many as 12 points in the third quarter, before Tritz called a timeout to regroup her team and make sure they knew what was at stake.
"We just talked about doing some things better, and not losing heart," Tritz said. "I thought we kind of lost our heart and our willingness to fight early in (another game this year). But tonight we showed we have a lot of heart and fight in us."
In fact, Zumwalt West fought all the way back to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and led 34-30, after a pair of driving layups by senior Katie Hare.
Jones answered with another 3-pointer—her fifth of the day—to pull the Lady Spartans to within a point, and later added two free throws to put Howell Central back in the lead.
The teams traded free throws for the final points of regulation, with Jones, who finished with 35 of Central's 45 total points, making a final foul shot with 17.7 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
"She's an unbelievable player," Ricker said. "She even had to bring the ball upcourt for us. Normally, she doesn't bring the ball up. But we kind of had to create a new offense on the fly. We were just doing what we thought we had to do."
The overtime though, belonged to Zumwalt West. The Jags outscored Howell Central 13-7, and pulled away in the final minute thanks to a series of clutch free throws by senior Paige Westbrook.
Howell Central tried a couple of desperation 3-pointers in the final seconds, but couldn't connect, and could only watch as Zumwalt West celebrated earning its second Final Four trip in the last three years.
"Last time, I thought we were just kind of happy to be there," Tritz said. "This time, I think we'll go up there and hopefully be ready to play well and win."
When Zumwalt West (26-5) gets to Mizzou Arena on Thursday, it will find perennial state power Blue Springs (26-4) waiting, for a 5:10 p.m. matchup, with the winner earning a trip to the state title game on Saturday, at 3 p.m.
"I've got two more games left in me, and I'm going to make the most of them," Tritz said.