The Rolla boys looked like they were in trouble when they went into halftime of the Class 4 District 11 Championship game on Friday.
The Bulldogs trailed Helias 43-24 at the half, but they charged back to tie the game with less than two minutes left in the game. With the game tied at 60, Rolla let the clock tick away, which set up a last second three from Alec Buhr to lift the Bulldogs to a 63-60 win.
"It's truly amazing, I can't even express the feeling," said Buhr of hitting the game-winning shot. "It's something I wish every person could feel in their lifetime. I'm truly blessed to make that shot."
Before got the chance to hit that game-winner, Rolla was in a deep hole. Helias was unstoppable in the first half with a barrage of threes. The Crusaders just couldn't miss. Benjamin Cooper opened the game by burying five threes in just the first quarter, scoring all of Helias' 16 points in the opening frame. His fifth three came in the final seconds, fading away from the basket as the shot fell.
Cooper's teammates then stepped up in the second. Nick Brandt knocked down a trio from long range in the quarter, while Jake Van Loo and Landon Harrison each added one of their own. Helias led by as many as 20 points in the quarter, but Rolla was able to stay afloat thanks to 18 first half points from Josh Pritchett. Despite 18 points from their senior captain, the rest of the Bulldogs only added six points in the opening half, as shots just weren't falling. As a result, Rolla went into the half trailing 43-24. The Bulldogs knew they needed to make some changes in the second half if they were going to make this a game.
"The message was calm," said head coach Mark Miller. "Just 'let's stay in this, it's one half of basketball, we have a whole lot to play yet. You guys could come out and shoot lights out like they did in the second half. If we maintain our composure in the second half, we'll be okay."
Pritchett said he and his teammates focused on stepping up their defense in the second half.
"We got in at the half, we were just saying to each other that we have to play better defense, we've gotta get back in transition and just get on their shooters in the corners," said Pritchett. "When we went in there, we knew that no matter what we were gonna keep fighting and keep hustling and that showed in the second half."
Rolla did just that in the second half. Helias scored just 17 points in the second half and only hit two threes after knocking down 10 in the first half. With Helias' scoring down, the Bulldogs needed to find an offensive spark and Pritchett stepped up yet again. The Rolla senior scored eight points in the third and electrified the gym with a dunk midway through the quarter. That dunk cut the score to 46-32 and proved that the Bulldogs weren't going down without a fight. Helias was able to maintain a somewhat comfortable lead throughout the third, but Rolla opened the door for a comeback in the fourth.
The Bulldogs trailed 53-38 heading into the fourth, but they just kept clawing their way back into the game. Helias scored five quick points, but stalled out in the middle of the quarter and that's when Rolla pounced. First Muluken Pritchett knocked down a three, then Nick Janke and J. Pritchett each hit a pair of free throws to cut the gap to single digits. After that, the elder Pritchett buried a pair of threes in the span of 30 seconds to bring the score to 58-55. On Rolla's next possession, J. Pritchett drove to the basket and was fouled hard by Nathan Bax. Bax was called for a technical on the play and fouled out, while Pritchett went to the line to shoot four free throws. The senior hit three and the game was tied at 58. Pritchett scored again with two minutes left to take the lead, before Harrison knocked down a pair of free throws to lock the game at 60.
After the Helias free throws, Rolla elected to run out the final 1:40 on the clock and play for the final shot. After enough time had ticked away, Pritchett went to drive, but the ball was knocked away. Luckily, Janke and been moving up to place a screen, and he was able to grab the ball and get it out to Alec Buhr. That's when Buhr stepped up and knocked down a three, while two Crusaders crashed into him to give Rolla a 63-60 lead. The Bulldogs just had to hold on for four seconds. Helias was able to get off a last shot, but it was no good and Rolla earned their first District Championship since 2015.
While Buhr was the hero on the last shot, Pritchett was an absolute machine during the District Championship. He played like a senior who wasn't ready to be playing in his last game, scoring 41 points in one of the best scoring performances in school history.
"The mentality that he's got is that he's trying not to play his last game," said coach Miller after the game. "It's do whatever it takes to move on to our next stop and accomplishing a big goal that we've got."
Pritchett said he just noticed that shots weren't falling for his teammates, so he knew he had to take it upon himself to step up.
"I knew going into that third and fourth quarter that shots weren't falling for other people and I was just trying to hit and do my best to keep us going," said the Rolla senior captain.
Buhr added seven points for the Bulldogs, all of which came in the second half. Janke chipped in another six, while Blaize Klossner, Coby Martin and M. Pritchett each provided a three.
Rolla has had a bumpy road for the last few weeks. Their took their second and third losses of the season against Glendale and Pacific, while fighting illness and the injury bug. Klossner has played all of Districts with one contact and a headband over his forehead after getting bashed in the eye against Waynesville last Thursday, Davie Pound has played through a back injury and both Pritchett and Buhr missed two school days this week with illness. The win on Friday night was proof that the Bulldogs will just keep fighting no matter how tough things get.
"Several of our guys have dealt (with things recently). Davie was dealing with a back issue, Buhr and Pritchett both missed two days of school this week," said coach Miller. "We're just trying to get healthy and I didn't give Buhr or Pritchett a break tonight. I couldn't . I saw they just literally had nothing to give and they found a way to keep on going and make big plays."
Senior forward Nick Janke said this past few weeks has been a wild ride, but he and the rest of the Bulldogs are excited for the challenge ahead.
"It's been pretty wild. We were kind of not playing our best and that first half, we're down almost 20 and it looked like it might make a turn for the worst," said Janke. "To come out and turn it around and win this District Championship is just really special."
Pritchett and his teammates are pumped about the win, but they still know there are some goals left to accomplish.
"It definitely does feel good just to beat that rival, but we're not going to soak on it for too long," said Pritchett. "We're just gonna keep playing and then it's onto the next one."
Rolla will face off against Grandview in Sectional action at Smith-Cotton in Sedalia on Tuesday, Mar. 6.