The Rolla girls basketball team finished off 2018 with a win in their home tournament and now they've started the new year on the same foot. The Lady Bulldogs faced off against Blair Oaks for the championship of the Comet Classic in Fatima on Thursday, Jan. 10 and overcame a rough offensive start to claim their second straight tournament championship 44-35.
Offense was at a premium on Thursday night and that was never more evident than in the first quarter between Rolla and Blair Oaks. Ellie Rodgers kicked off the scoring with a three 20 seconds into the game, but after that the Rolla offense flatlined. A free throw from Rodgers was the only other point for the Lady Bulldogs, as they started to dig a hole for themselves. A pair of threes from Makenna Kliethermes helped Blair Oaks take a 12-4 lead into the second quarter.
The script was flipped in the second quarter, but there still wasn't much scoring. Carli Libhart gave Rolla a much needed spark with back to back threes early in the quarter. An offensive rebound and bucket from Rebecca Janke was followed by two free throws from Libhart, which tied the game at 14 points with 4:44 left to play in the half. After that, it was all defense. Rolla had a few open looks, but couldn't get any shots to fall. Neither team scored in the final 4:44 of the half, as the two teams went into the break locked in a 14-14 tie.
The Lady Bulldogs were determined to jumpstart their offense in the second half and they got out to a fast start early in the third quarter. Libhart opened the quarter with a three, before five straight points by Rodgers gave Rolla a 22-14 lead. Blair Oaks responded with five points on their next two possessions. After those five points, scoring stopped until 2:35 left in the quarter. That started a flurry of scoring, which kicked off with a three from Blair Oaks' Clair Heckman to tie the game at 22. That was followed by a string of Rolla taking the lead only to see Blair Oaks instantly tie the game. Savannah Campbell scored and Blair Oaks responded with a bucket. Libhart then knocked down a three and Kliethermes responded with a three of her own. Loran Pritchett finished the quarter strong for the Lady Bulldogs. Her first bucket was followed by a Blair Oaks basket, but Pritchett was able to hit a floater in the lane at the end of the third to give Rolla a slim 31-29 lead with a quarter to play.
While the lead to start the fourth was slim, Rolla would never relinquish it. Blair Oaks got within a point at the beginning of the quarter, before a great stretch from the Lady Bulldogs. Janke scored five straight points for Rolla, before a pair of free throws from Pritchett and another free throw from Kianna Garner. The 8-0 Rolla run gave the Lady Bulldogs a 40-31 lead and they were able to seal the game from there. Blair Oaks was held scoreless for more than five minutes in the fourth quarter and they only made one field goal in the quarter. Rolla wasn't perfect from the free throw line down the stretch, but played strong enough defense to finish off a 44-35 win.
Blair Oaks was the a tough matchup for Rolla because the two teams do a lot of the same things. Both are strong in the paint, but shoot the three ball well and they both bring a lot of pressure with presses. It took the Lady Bulldogs a quarter to get their feet under them, but head coach Luke Floyd was proud of how they adjusted.
"We adjusted. We proved to ourselves that we can play a grind it out half court game," said coach Floyd. "We don't have to get into a track meet and try to outscore someone, we can play ball control and really get down and guard, which we seem to do every night, but I was proud of the way we could play half court offense tonight and get buckets when we needed to. It would've been nice to knock down a few more free throws, but I was so proud of the girls and the adjustment they made."
Libhart led Rolla with 16 points in the win, while Rodgers added 11 points, four steals, five rebounds and two assists. Blair Oaks frustrated Janke early, but she was crucial late and finished the game with eight points, six of which came in the fourth, while pulling down nine rebounds, blocking a shot and grabbing a steal. She also earned a spot on the All-Tournament team for her consistent play all week. Pritchett chipped in with six points, including the basket that gave Rolla the lead for good at the end of the third, as well as four rebounds, three assists and a block. Campbell was limited to two points, five rebounds and three assists in the championship, but her play throughout the week earned tournament MVP honors.
"It's been really fun getting to hang out with the girls...they're very inviting and they've made me feel more comfortable," said Campbell of the back to back tournament championships. "It's all really exciting and we're looking forward to going on to the next tournament."
With scoring at a premium, defense was key to Rolla winning their second straight tournament championship. Coach Floyd was thrilled with the defensive performance the Lady Bulldogs had to finish the tournament strong.
"They can guard," said coach Floyd. "We say before every game 'what wins championships?' Defense is the answer and they hop right in there. They have found the fun in guarding and playing defense. That's going to carry us however far we go this season, it's going to be based on that defense."
This Lady Bulldog basketball team is out to prove a point this season and two straight tournament championships is an excellent way to prove that point.
"It shows that our tournament wasn't a fluke," said coach Floyd about starting 2019 with another tournament championship. "We can turn around and do it again against quality teams. We turn around and go to Sedalia next week for another tournament to prove once again that we can do it."
The Sedalia Tournament will kick off on Wednesday, Jan. 16.