The Rolla boys basketball team (11-6, 2-1 OC) made the trip down 44 to Lebanon for an Ozark Conference matchup on Tuesday, Jan. 31. The game was back and forth all night long, but the Bulldogs pushed through foul trouble on their way to a 73-70 win.
Rolla got out to a rough start in the foul department. Zac Burns had two fouls in the first minute of the game and the Bulldogs had committed seven fouls as a team in the first quarter alone. But Rolla managed to fight through. A pair of early threes from Brandon Cunningham and Josh Pritchett gave Rolla an early lead in the first. Lebanon's three point shooting kept things close, as they hit three in the first quarter, but eight points from Cunningham and another seven from Pritchett gave Rolla a 20-17 lead through the first quarter.
Lebanon came right back in the second, tying the game at 20 on their first possession with a three by Quinton Shelton. Shelton went off in the second quarter, burying four threes in a 16-point second quarter. Rolla managed to respond to a few of those when Alec Buhr and Pritchett connected from long range, but Lebanon was just too hot from the field. Rolla's foul trouble certainly didn't do them any favors, as they tried to avoid sending the Yellowjackets to the free throw line, which opened up some opportunities from the field. Lebanon scored 26 points in the second quarter and led by as many as nine, but the Bulldogs managed to cut the deficit to 43-38 at the half.
Rolla managed to cut into that deficit throughout the third, but the fouls kept piling up for the Bulldogs. Buhr got called on some quick fouls early in the third, bringing his game total to four with most of the second half remaining. Despite the fouls, Rolla was able to tie the game at 53 on a free throw from Burns, who was forced to sit for all of the first minute of the first half, with just over three minutes left in the quarter. A three by Blaize Klossner gave Rolla their first lead of the quarter, but Lebanon quickly took that lead back. Klossner then returned the favor at the free throw line, sinking two free throws to give Rolla a 58-57 lead with a minute left to play. The score would stay the same until the final seconds when Coby Martin sank a three from the corner to extend the lead to four going into the final quarter.
The lead would go back and forth throughout the fourth quarter. Lebanon was able to retake the lead and stretch it out to five points, but Pritchett hit a jumper on the baseline to bring the score to 66-63 with three and a half minutes to play. Buhr, who reentered the game despite foul trouble, was able to hit a pair of free throws with three minutes remaining to bring the score to 66-65. Lebanon scored to push their lead back out to three, but a hard foul on Pritchett sent him to the line where he made one free throw to cut it back to two. With a minute left to play, Burns tied the game with a layup, then took a charge on one of the biggest defensive plays of the game to give the ball back to Rolla.
"I just think that was a critical point in the game," said head coach Mark Miller of the charge Burns took late in the fourth. "Zac had to sit early because he got two fouls early and we missed him. He's just steady, he's a leader, he hustles and reads passes, he's able to jump the pass well. But then what a huge play there at the end to take that charge to get us the ball back. We appreciate our senior leadership out of him."
After running a few seconds off the clock, Pritchett hit converted on a layup despite a foul, converting at the charity stripe for a three point play and a 71-68 lead. Lebanon scored to cut the Rolla lead to one and then fouled Pritchett to give him a chance to seal the win with 16.7 seconds left. After hitting the first, Lebanon called a timeout in an attempt to ice Pritchett at the line. It didn't affect him and he buried the second to stretch the lead back out to 73-70. Jack Ehrhardt tried to fire up a couple of last second threes for Lebanon to force overtime, but both were off the mark and the Bulldogs were able to sneak out of Lebanon with a 73-70 win.
Pritchett knew that the key to finishing out that game was staying strong, whether it's going strong to the basket on his and one or holding on for the win.
"Stay strong with the ball, don't let them get it," were the thoughts going through Pritchett's head as he finished the game. "We knew they were going to be coming at us to hack us, so we were trying not to turn the ball over."
Rolla finished the game with two players in double figures. Pritchett led the way with 27 points and Nick Janke provided some stability in the paint with 14. Rolla ended up having seven players score in the win, as they were forced to shuffle the lineup around foul trouble. Pritchett said the key was making sure everyone stayed involved.
"We kinda just went with the flow," said Pritchett. "We tried to get it into players hands, even if they were just coming off the bench and cold. We just tried to do whatever we could."
The Bulldogs' foul trouble meant some bench players really had to step up. Coach Miller pointed out Martin in particular.
"Coby Martin did a really nice job that freshman (Shelton), shut him down in the second half and he gave us a little offense. He continues to make progress for us," said Miller. "It does make your team look a little different when you're busy trying to juggle those fouls because finding a way to gel, it helps playing together. When you don't have the same five out there for more than 35 or 40 seconds, it's a little bit of a challenge to them, but the guys found a way."
Pritchett was a huge part in the win from his scoring throughout the game, but especially as the game winds down. Coach Miller thinks he's developing into a special player.
"We know that he's a premiere player. Not only in our area, but certainly in our conference," said Miller of Pritchett. "Josh is just kinda stepping into what we think he's capable of and I love the way he closed it out tonight hitting those free throws down the stretch, but being able to attack the basket and finish like he does and also be a threat from three, it makes us a pretty good offensive team."
This was a big win for Rolla, as they get their second straight conference win. All of Rolla's remaining games, except for a rescheduled game against Helias, will be against conference opponents, so it's important for them to get off to a strong start in the Ozark Conference.
"Any conference win on the road is definitely big," said coach Miller. "In our conference, if you're going to their place and you're not on your game, you stand a chance to get beat no matter how good you are."
The Bulldogs remain in the conference for their next game when they travel to West Plains on Friday, Feb. 3.
Pritchett - 27, Janke - 14, Cunningham - 8, Burns - 7, Klossner - 6, Martin - 5, Buhr - 4, Quick - 2