HOPKINS, Mo. — When a team is hit with the key injuries that North Nodaway has been dealt this season, it has to rely on young, inexperienced players growing up in a hurry.
For the Mustangs (17-7), two of those players thrust into bigger roles this season were freshman Lauren Herndon and sophomore Ellaina Renfro. And in the first win-or-go-home game of the season both stepped up in a big way for the 52-34 win over Mound City in the district opener.
Herndon began the season as the Mustangs’ sixth man, learning the ropes behind veteran guards Jadon Dobbins, Jacquelyn Cline and Saylor Brown. When Brown was lost for the season with a knee injury, Herndon’s role completely changed — going from that spark off the bench to hardly leaving the floor.
Instead of learning in scattered minutes behind the team’s starters, the freshman has had to adapt on the fly this season. That also means learning to trust herself as coaches and teammates have encouraged her to be aggressive this season.
“Last time we played them, I could’ve shot over her,” Herndon said. “(Coaches) Sami and Lindsi (Jackson) kept building up my confidence, telling me to shoot over her. I think that having the crowd after shooting the first one and making it — even missing some — it really kept me going with the crowd cheering.”
Before Monday’s game, Cline and Herndon got each other excited for the game by talking about the shots they were going to hit.
“We just needed to have fun and be hyped before the game,” Herndon said.
The pair of underclassmen proved to be correct as they combined for 33 points. It was Herndon who got things started for the Mustangs with 11 points in the first quarter.
“She is one who really needed a game like that,” North Nodaway coach Sami Jackson said. “She has kind of been conservative on her shot these past few games. To see her come out in that first quarter and make them have to guard her, I think that was a big part in getting everyone else open for their shots and scores later in the game.”
With the team up 2-1, Herndon splashed back-to-back threes for an 8-1 advantage. Then, after Mound City’s Kendall Hux answered with two points, Herndon connected on her third 3-pointer and then scored on a put-back just before the buzzer sounded for a 13-3 lead after one quarter.
The second quarter was Cline’s turn to take center stage. The sophomore hit back-to-back shots, including a 3-pointer, to push the margin to 20-6. With the lead 25-11, she repeated the 5-point surge with a two-pointer followed by a 3-pointer for a 30-11 margin.
“It is easy to stop one scorer, but when you have multiple ones stepping in and doing it, it makes it a lot harder,” Jackson said.
Dobbins sent the team to the locker room with all smiles as she closed the half with a layup to push the lead to 32-11 at intermission. Jackson says those smiles played a huge role in the team’s success on Monday as they set out with the goal to have fun.
“It has been a while since we’ve had some fun,” Jackson said. “It was about time to break loose and have some fun.”
After a surprising loss to Union Star ended the regular season and the team only beat Mound City by six in its home finale, Cline believes that remembering to have fun was essential.
“I think that this game is definitely our turning point from how we’ve been playing lately and you can see everyone starting to step back up and play their roles,” Cline said.
Mound City kept fighting early in the second half and trimmed the margin to 16 points at 38-22, but Cline answered with a 3-pointer and a Dobbins’ foul shot gave North Nodaway a 42-22 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The Panther had one more run to pull to within 45-31, but the Mustangs closed the game out at the foul line by going 7-for-7 in the final minutes before missing their final attempts with the game decided.
The Panthers were led in scoring by Elizabeth Laukemper with 16 points and Sydney Meadows with 11.
Cline led the Mustangs with 18 points while Herndon finished with 15, Saryn Brown had 11 and Dobbins had eight.
Renfro did not score, but helped dominate the rebounding battle against the much taller Panthers. Renfro went from playing very little behind Saryn Brown, Karissa Oberhauser and Kelsey Barcus in the frontcourt to starting after the injuries to Saylor Brown and Barcus.
“She is one that came in and had to work her butt off to get her spot,” Jackson said. “And she never got comfortable in it. She took it, she rolled with it and just kept working hard. … When she plays big like that, we do really well.”
The win sends the Mustangs into the district semifinals where they will have a road trip to Oregon to face second-seeded South Holt, who beat Northeast Nodaway 48-26 in its district opener. The district semifinal will tip off at 6 p.m., on Wednesday.
“Definitely being more physical and being tough,” Cline said on the keys against the Knights. “They are a strong team, and their defense is really good.”