14 years is a long time to wait. That's how long the Rolla girls basketball team has been waiting to claim a District Championship, with their last title coming in 2005.
Now that wait is over.
The Lady Bulldogs had to fight off a late comeback from Owensville, but they were able to come out with a 62-60 win to finish atop Class 4 District 10 on Friday, Mar. 1. To put that 14-year gap into perspective, freshman guard Carli Libhart was barely alive the last time the girls brought a title back to Rolla.
"I was probably one. I'm 15 now," said Libhart. "It's crazy. It's very exciting to share this moment with my teammates."
The Lady Bulldogs had to go through some ups and downs before they were able to hold that plaque. It took a few minutes for either team to find their footing in the game's opening quarter, as the score sat at 6-5 after five minutes of play. Rebecca Janke did a lot of the heavy-lifting early, scoring four of Rolla's first six points and doing whatever she could to bottle up Owensville's star forward, Breanna Diestlelkamp. Then the guards stepped up, as Libhart buried a three to extend Rolla's lead to 9-5. Madison Mace followed with a layup to push the lead out to six points. Owensville added one more basket before the end of the quarter, but Savannah Campbell put a cherry on top of a strong opening frame with a late basket to finish the first with a 13-7 lead.
Owensville came out swinging in the second, scoring the first three points of the quarter to cut the Lady Bulldog lead to three, but after that, the Rolla freshmen took over. First Campbell scored down low to push the lead back to five, before getting a steal on the ensuing inbound and dishing a pass to Libhart. Libhart connected on a three-point play to extend the lead to eight. Libhart added a three mid-way through the quarter, but Owensville wasn't done yet. Diestelkamp was able to score four straight points for Owensville, which stated a 6-0 run to cut the Lady Bulldog lead down to three. Kianna Garner then gave Rolla a huge boost, first scoring with 30 seconds left, before responding to a late Owensville bucket with a basket at the buzzer to send Rolla into the half with a 27-22 lead.
Rolla was in for a dogfight in the third quarter, as the Dutchgirls refused to back down. Owensville whittled the Rolla lead down to two points in the frame, but what made things worse was foul trouble for Janke. She picked up her fourth foul with a minute and a half to play in the quarter with Rolla clinging to a 35-32 lead. That's when her teammates stepped up. First they got a basket from Libhart, followed by a steal and a basket from Loran Pritchett. Another steal set up a bucket from Garner and suddenly Rolla's lead was stretched out to 41-32. Owensville managed just two points after Janke left the floor with a pair of free throws. Rolla responded with three free throws from Libhart, as she was fouled taking a three in the corner. Olivia Burken then hit Rolla's second buzzer beater of the night to extend the lead to 46-34 heading into the fourth.
Owensville wasn't about to back down, even if they trailed by 12 to start the fourth. The Dutchgirls came out swinging, knocking down a three on their opening possession to kick off a 9-2 run to open the frame. Owensville kept whittling away, getting Rolla's lead down to one point, but the Lady Bulldogs never surrendered it.
Liana Miller scored for Owensville with 4:25 left in the game to bring the score to 52-50. That's when Rolla started hitting some big free throws. First Libhart knocked down a pair, before a big three from Ella Wright cut the Rolla lead to one. Ellie Rodgers responded by hitting two more free throws. Another Dutchgirl basket put the Rolla lead back at one, before a pair of free throws from Pritchett gave them room to breathe.
After another Owensville basket, Rodgers went to the line again with just under a minute to play. She hit her first, but missed the second. That's where Mace stepped in, grabbing the offensive rebound and hitting a free throw of her own. Janke then got a massive block on the defensive end and Rodgers was able to gobble it up. She added another free throw to push the lead to four, before hitting another with 13.7 seconds left to seal the deal. Owensville hit a three at the buzzer, but all it did was bring the final score closer in a 62-60 win for Rolla. Head coach Luke Floyd loved the way his team fought to hold onto that lead until the final buzzer.
"They didn't give up. They just kept battling and battling. I thought when we went on that run to finish off the third quarter, that would be the spark we needed to pull away in the fourth," said coach Floyd. " You've gotta give Owensville credit, they just kept coming back and hitting shots every time we got some separationI was proud of our girls for answering their answers for the most part."
This was a big moment for the returning players, as they were so close to a District Title last season. Osage edged Rolla 46-40 in last year's District Championship game, which Rodgers thinks helped prepare the girls for this title run.
"I'm just so thrilled. I knew we could do it if we just played our game," said Rodgers. "I think losing last year in the District Championship really prepared us for this year. We knew what we had to bring to it and we knew what we had to do to get it done."
Making this moment even more poetic, the Lady Bulldogs will now get to face Osage for a rematch of last year's title game in Sectionals. Last year the game was played on Rolla's home floor and the rematch will be played a few blocks away at Missouri S&T.
"It's really exciting, just a lot of happy energy," said Janke after the game. "Especially since we're getting to play Osage for our Sectional game. It's going to be really exciting to get the rematch against them that we wanted."
Rodgers made the point after the game that this win wasn't just for the girls on the floor. This District Title was for the girls who finished their seasons without a win and laid the building blocks for what this Lady Bulldog team has become.
"Every one who's played since 2004 has built up this program to what it's come to today," said Rodgers. "I'm just really excited for everyone that's been a part of it and I'm thrilled we got do it for the girls that weren't as fortunate to win one."
Coach Floyd has now seen this basketball program at it's highest and lowest points. He's thrilled to see how far these girls have come and to see them get rewarded for all that hard work.
"I'm just happy for them, because they've put in a lot of hours and a lot of work to get to this point," said the Rolla head coach. "Even the girls that first year when we went win-less, they still laid the foundation for our program. They set the standards that we go by every day of being a good person, being a good student, doing things the right way. They didn't necessarily get the rewards for it, but they can look back and realize that they were a huge part of this program."
Libhart was huge for Rolla all night long, scoring 16 points in the victory. She looked calm and collected on the court, despite being a freshman and she said she just wanted to go out there and help get the Rolla seniors a title.
"I came in knowing that the seniors had a rough time throughout the last four years and I wanted to make sure that their last shot was very special," said Libhart. "Winning this District Championship is probably the most special thing we could do."
The Lady Bulldogs spread the ball around well. Janke had 10 points in the win, while Campbell, Pritchett and Garner each had eight. Rodgers chipped in with seven points, Mace had three and Olivia Burken had two. The Lady Bulldogs play very self-less basketball and they proved that again on Friday.
"It's been a team effort all year long," said coach Floyd after the game. "There's really no one you can pick out and say this girl carried us tonight. Everybody was a key at some point."
The Lady Bulldogs will face Osage for their Sectional game at S&T on Tuesday, Mar. 5 at 7:45.