Tuesday was a very special day for the Rolla girls basketball team.
Ellie Rodgers started the day by celebrating her 16th birthday and the Lady Bulldogs ended the day by celebrating a 45-40 victory over Helias that earned them a spot in the District Championship for the first time since 2012.
"Losing to them earlier in the season made everyone more hungry to get this W tonight and to get to the finals. It's been so long since we've been there," said Rodgers after the game. "Everyone's looking forward to it and we're super excited."
The Lady Bulldogs were able to get a little revenge over a Helias team that beat them 76-53 earlier this season. For a young Rolla team, the win was another huge accomplishment to add to a growing list.
"Our saying is prove everybody wrong and we really tried to come out tonight and do it," said Rodgers. "We've been super young, so it's been nice to prove ourselves to everybody. Like you start four seniors, well we start four sophomores and we can play just as well as you can and we can come out and get it done."
Rodgers and company were able to pull out the win thanks to some stellar defense and timely shooting. Neither team was able to grab control of the game early on until Rolla got a spark from Karlee Cheesman. The Rolla sophomore hit two big threes in the first half, the second gave the Lady Bulldogs some excellent momentum. Just before the first half ended, Cheesman got the ball in the corner and dropped in a three at the buzzer, which gave Rolla a 24-23 lead going into the half.
That momentum didn't stop with the halftime break. The Lady Bulldogs opened the half on a 5-0 run and it took Helias almost four minutes to get their first points of the third quarter. That luck ran out a little bit in the final four minutes of the quarter, as Lauren Alexander buried two threes, the second of which cut the Rolla lead to 34-33 at the buzzer heading into the fourth.
Alexander opened the final quarter with another three to give Helias the lead right away, but that didn't fluster the Lady Bulldogs. Rolla was able to tie the game on the next possession, before a few huge plays lifted them to victory.
The first clutch play came midway through the quarter when Rebecca Janke stepped up to the free throw line. Janke hit her first attempt, but the second bounced away. Kiana Garner was there to clean up with a rebound, before getting the ball back to Janke for a bucket. That play gave Rolla a 41-38 lead that they would not give up.
From there, Rolla continued to play stellar defense. Janke and Loran Pritchett were a dynamic duo in the paint, blocking several shots throughout the fourth quarter. Janke said having Pritchett behind her made her job a lot easier.
"Loran talks to me really well, so it's really easy to know that I can go out and she'll be there behind me," said the sophomore forward.
While those two were locking down the paint, the Rolla guards were shutting down the Helias shooters. The Lady Crusaders scored just two points in the final four minutes of the game and Rolla hit a few free throws down the stretch to close out the 45-40 win.
"They just played so tough tonight," said head coach Luke Floyd about his team. "I can't say enough about the effort of these girls. They just fought and scratched and clawed and this is what postseason basketball is. I can't be more excited for these girls."
So many players stepped up for Rolla in the win. Janke led the Lady Bulldogs with 13 points, while adding five rebounds and three blocks. Rodgers celebrated her birthday with 10 points, four rebounds and two steals. Garner led Rolla in rebounds with six to go along with four points, while Pritchett added six points, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Cheesman's three point shooting led to nine points, while she added four rebounds and a steal.
"These girls are on a mission to prove that we've got a pretty good basketball team," said coach Floyd. "To be able to host Districts and play in front of our fans, that's exciting. The girls are embracing this opportunity."
Rolla will face off against Osage for the District Championship on Friday, March 3. The Lady Indians beat Salem 58-50 in the other semifinal.