By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
MEXICO, Mo. -- Katee Hinkle wanted to return the favor.
Noting Palmyra senior guard Evie Miles is always there to pick her up, Hinkle positioned herself to do the same. It's a good thing she did.
After stealing the ball from Blair Oaks' Sara Jones with 1 minute, 18 seconds remaining in Wednesday night's Class 3 sectional, Miles drove for what would have been a go-ahead basket. The ball, however, popped off the rim and fell to Hinkle, who at 5-foot-4 is Palmyra's shortest starter.
She made the putback and helped the Lady Panthers advance with a 55-49 victory at Mexico High School.
"I was just there for Evie because she's always there to pick me up," Hinkle said. "So I thought, ‘Might as well get down there.' I just had to pick her up and help us win the game."
Prior to Hinkle's basket, Palmyra (24-5) hadn't led since Alexis Van Nostrand made a free throw to put the Lady Panthers up 7-6 with 5:54 left in the first quarter.
"It's not always the best luck when your smallest person gets the board under the basket," Palmyra coach Chris Parsons said. "She got it, went right back up with it and knew what to do with it. It was two of the biggest points of the night."
It kept the season alive.
Palmyra will play North Technical High School in the state quarterfinals at 7:45 p.m. Saturday at Moberly Area Community College. It's one step short of what Parsons talked about on the first day of practice.
"I looked up at the banners hanging up our gym, and there are a lot of them. I told them that was our goal," Parsons said. "I knew the athleticism this team has, and I truly believe if we play to our potential a final four is possible. We're still one game away, and it's not going to be handed to us, but we've put ourselves in position to be there."
Van Nostrand, who scored a game-high 17 points, made three free throws in the final minute to help the Lady Panthers seal the win.
Even after that, she admitted she wasn't so sure of Parsons' goal.
"I thought he was crazy, honestly," Von Nostrand said. "I only thought he was crazy because we made the district title last year, and the year before that, we didn't make it there. His coaching and our will to follow him helps a lot and got us here."
Foul trouble plagued Palmyra from the beginning. The Lady Panthers were called for 22 fouls and had Lexie Losson, who finished with 10 points, and Allie Dietrich foul out.
Blair Oaks, which finished 24-3 and was ranked No. 2 in the state by the Missouri High School Basketball Coaches Association, played a physical game. The Falcons' Amanda Rackers and Darian Werdehausen controlled the glass in the first half. Both players finished with 10 points, combining for 14 in the first half as Blair Oaks built a 32-23 halftime lead.
"We didn't expect it to be that physical," said Hinkle, who finished with 11 points. "We just kind of had to get physical back. We had to play our game and be physical at the same time so we didn't get pushed around."
Blair Oaks led 41-38 at the end of third quarter and still held a 47-46 lead after a free throw by Rackers with 1:22 remaining.
After Hinkle made her go-ahead layup, Blair Oaks threw a pass out of bounds. Van Nostrand was fouled and hit two free throws to extend the lead.
"Don't airball it," Van Nostrand said about what she was thinking. "I wanted to make them because we needed to extend our lead a little bit, but it was tough."
Hinkle was excited to give the entire program a lift.
"I didn't know they were ranked No. 2," Hinkle said. "I don't really pay attention to that stuff because that's other people's opinions. We just come out and play our games, and to me, we're No. 1."