The Rolla girls basketball team had a season of making history. The Lady Bulldogs earned a share of the Ozark Conference, snapped a 14-year District Title drought, won their second Sectional game in program history and won 24 games. A late comeback attempt nearly made that 25, but Rolla couldn't find quite enough offense in a defensive battle with Logan Rogersville in the State Quarterfinals on Saturday.
The Lady Bulldogs were on the short end of a 45-40 loss, but that shouldn't overshadow a truly incredible season.
"When we won Districts and even kind of after we won conference, we knew every game after Districts was a bonus. We've just been approaching it that way. Just enjoy the moment," said head coach Luke Floyd. "We wanted to win tonight and we want to go to the Final Four, but enjoy every moment because you don't always get these opportunities.
"Lots of things could change next year and we never make it back," continued coach Floyd. "I thought the girls did a great job of doing that. We enjoyed the process, enjoyed the community rallying around us and sending us cards and well wishes. It's neat to see them get to experience that and kind of revive some life into our program."
The Lady Bulldogs fought tooth and nail all night long, but offense was hard to come by. Logan Rogersville compacted the lane, taking Rebecca Janke out of the game for most of the night. Rolla needed a spark early and they found one in Loran Pritchett. The junior forward knocked down a three and scored five of Rolla's six points in the opening quarter, but Logan Rogersville was able to get enough going to carry an 8-6 lead into the second.
The second quarter mirrored the first. Logan Rogersville came out swinging with the first five points to extend an early lead, before Carli Libhart connected from long range to get the Rolla offense started. Janke was able to fight through for a bucket soon after to cut the deficit back to two. After a Lady Wildcat basket, Pritchett hit her second three of the night to get the Lady Bulldogs within one. Three free throws from Logan Rogersville put their lead back at four, but a bucket from Pritchett kept Rolla within striking distance. Janke then got a big steal, which led to a basket from Libhart with 26 seconds left in the half, tying the game at 18 headed into the break.
After scoring 10 of Rolla's 18 first-half points, Logan Rogersville keyed in on Pritchett after halftime. She still managed to add two points in the third, but the Lady Bulldogs needed another source of offense. Unfortunately, the shots weren't falling for Rolla in the third, as they managed just four points in the quarter. Spectacular defense kept them in the game though, as Logan Rogersville made just one field goal in the third. Fouls hurt the Lady Bulldogs down the stretch, however, as the Lady Wildcats attempted six free throws in the final three minutes and eight times in the quarter. They converted on six of those attempts to bring a 27-22 lead into the fourth.
The final quarter saw both teams trade runs back and forth. Rolla got within three early after back to back baskets from Janke and Garner. The deficit floated around three points until a Logan Rogersville run at the free throw line. The Lady Wildcats went to the line eight times in the span of a minute and a half, converting on all eight of those attempts. The final free throw fell with 2:12 left and Rolla trailed by 11 points.
With their backs against the wall, Rolla decided to switch things up. After electing not to press for most of the game, coach Floyd decided to crank up the pressure, which paid off in spades. After a pair of free throws from Ellie Rodgers, Rolla forced a turnover on the ensuing inbound. That turnover led to a three from Libhart. A minute then ticked off the clock before either team scored again, when Rodgers fired a contested three with 34 seconds left to play. The shot fell, bringing the score to 41-38. Unfortunately, Rolla couldn't keep the Lady Wildcats off the board and they managed to add a basket with 19 seconds left to play. Libhart got Rolla within three again with 2.6 left to play, but Jordyn Gault iced the game with a pair of free throws with .3 seconds left on the clock to take down the Lady Bulldogs 45-40.
While Rolla couldn't quite complete the comeback, coach Floyd was proud of his team for not folding down 11 in the fourth.
"That's just our team, they're just resilient. They're not going to give up. They've got a lot of heart and they're just going to continue to battle," said the Rolla head coach. "We try to make defense our calling card and when shots weren't falling our defense kept us in the game and gave us that chance late. We were able to throw the press back on, turn them over a little bit and get some opportunities to score.
"It's just a great group of girls," continued coach Floyd. "You never want it to end, but to say I'm proud of them would be a gross understatement. They amaze me each and every day at practice and in games. I'm just happy for them. I wish it could've gone on more, but they have not disappointed me in any way."
Pritchett led Rolla with 12 points in the quarterfinal, while Libhart added 10. Rodgers scored eight, all but one of which came in the game's final quarter. Janke added six points in the paint, while Kianna Garner chipped in with four.
While the last loss of the season is always hard, it's particularly tough on the seniors. Garner and Olivia Burken have been through a lot of ups and downs with Lady Bulldog basketball and coach Floyd was glad he was able to send them out with Rolla's second girls basketball appearance in a State Quarterfinal.
"Their freshman year, I think we won six games and the ones we didn't win, we weren't competitive in many of them. To slowly build and to make a District Championship their junior year and then to make the Quarterfinals their senior year, it gives a lot of credit to them to stick with it and battle, but to also continue to work on their games," said coach Floyd. "Their leadership this year both by example and just vocally has been tremendous. You hate to lose them out of your locker room, but if they can't go to the Final Four, I'm glad they got to experience the senior season that they did."
While Rolla will miss Garner and Burken, they'll bring a lot of talent back next year. With a team heavily built around juniors and freshmen, the Lady Bulldogs should be just as competitive next season. Coach Floyd hopes this loss inspires his returning players to work harder and come back with even more fire next year.
"I don't think, I know they'll be ready to go next year," said coach Floyd.