By FRANK CASH
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
PALMYRA, Mo. -- Cody Leonard wishes his Monroe City girls basketball team had finished Wednesday night's game the way it started.
As it turned out, the Lady Panthers felt lucky to escape with a 39-36 semifinal win over Clark County in the Tony Lenzini Tournament.
Top-seeded Monroe City scored the first 18 points, only to see fourth-seeded Clark County cut the lead to three points when Mishaylee Cline sank a 3-pointer from the right wing with 25 seconds left.
Olivia Crager had a chance to increase the Lady Panthers' lead but missed two free throws with 15.4 seconds left. Cline then missed an 18-footer from the right side with eight seconds left, allowing Monroe City to escape.
"The first quarter was as good a defense as we've played all year," Leonard said.
"Clark County made the adjustments they needed to make after we got out to the big lead, and we couldn't do many of the same things that we had done earlier in the game."
The Lady Panthers (14-2) will play the winner of Thursday's semifinal between Palmyra and Bowling Green in the championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday. Monroe City is looking for its first title at Palmyra since 2000.
For a while, it didn't look like the Lady Panthers would have any trouble advancing.
Monroe City relied on its half-court defense to hold Clark County scoreless for more than 10 minutes. After Carly Spalding's 3-pointer extended the Lady Panthers' lead to 18-0, the Lady Indians got on the scoreboard with Cline's two free throws with 5:35 left in the second quarter.
It was even longer before the Lady Indians scored from the floor -- Megan Oilar's basket with 2:23 left in the half which made the score 20-6.
"There have been several losses this season where we've dug ourselves a big hole like we did tonight and then tried to come back," Lady Indians coach Kelly Campbell said. "We did a decent job attacking their press early, so they dropped back to a half-court defense. We did pressure them well late in the game, but we also missed some awfully easy chip shots."
Crager led Monroe City, which led 33-23 with just under three minutes left in the game, with 16 points. Jenna Huston led Clark County with 12 points.
Leonard hopes this team can find a way to avoid letdowns after taking big leads.
"We've got to get back to work and find a way to get past this," Leonard said. "We're happy we won, but there are things we need to work on so this doesn't happen again. The players are anxious to get back out on the court."