By ADAM STILLMAN
COLUMBIA — When the final buzzer sounded, junior forward Rachel Rutter shouted, flung the ball up into the air and then joined her teammates on the floor in a mob of green and white.
The Rock Bridge Bruin’s girls basketball team had just defeated Incarnate Word Academy 50-35 in the Class 5 state championship game Saturday evening.
More than half of the lower bowl at Mizzou Arena rose to its feet, celebrating Rock Bridge’s first basketball championship in school history.
“It’s huge,” senior guard Claire Schaeperkoetter said. “(Being) state champs really means something special.”
Although both junior forward Katherine Harry and sophomore guard Amaya Williams admitted to being extremely nervous before the game, it didn’t show. The Bruins opened up the game on an 8-0 run and never looked back. Rock Bridge led the game from start to finish, with the Red Knights never getting closer than seven points.
“To come out strong and take their confidence away, that was huge for us,” Schaeperkoetter said.
The Bruins (25-6) dictated the pace early on, pushing the ball up the court in transition and getting easy buckets in the paint. Rock Bridge led 13-4 after the first quarter and 27-10 at halftime.
“We focus on starting strong and finishing stronger,” senior guard Andrea Seabaugh said.
Even when the Bruins were forced into running their half-court offense, Williams had her way, slashing through the Incarnate Word defense for easy lay-ups.
“It was really because we were moving the ball well,” Williams said.
Williams finished the game with 15 points, with 12 of them coming in the first half.
When Williams wasn’t driving to the basket, Harry was pounding away inside, establishing position and finishing around the rim.
“They (the Incarnate Word interior defense) were definitely really strong,” Harry said. “I was a little bit surprised that we could get it in.”
Harry led the Bruins with a game-high 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
Britteni Williams led Incarnate Word (29-4) with 10 points.
The Bruins led by as many as 27 points in the game--at the 1:23 mark of the third quarter after Harry completed an old-fashioned 3-point play.
Even with the offense clicking like it was, coach Jill Nagel was just as impressed with the Bruins’ defense and the way her team switched on picks.
“I think defense set the tone,” Nagel said.
Nagel said that before the game, Rock Bridge’s main goal was rebounding and box-outs.
The Bruins dominated on the boards and out-rebounded Incarnate Word 35-23.
Schaeperkoetter, who scored 15 points in the Bruins’ semifinal victory over Saint Joseph’s Academy, was held scoreless. That doesn’t tell the whole story though.
“At this point in the season, team goals trump individual goals,” Schaeperkoetter said.
She had 8 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and remained poised in handling Incarnate Word’s defensive pressure throughout the game.
She doesn’t care. Her team just won a state championship.
The win marks the fourth straight double-digit victory for Rock Bridge in the state playoffs. After barely escaping districts with a one-point win over Helias in the semifinals and two-point win over Hickman in the finals, Schaeperkoetter said she believes winning districts is what got her team over the hump.
“We were lucky to peak at the right time,” Schaeperkoetter said.
Schaeperkoetter said she believes Rock Bridge should go down as the best basketball team in the history of Columbia.
“We’re the first ones to win state,” Schaeperkoetter said.
For the seven seniors on the Rock Bridge squad, they get to end their careers on a high note.
Coach Nagel said she believes they laid a good foundation for the underclassmen coming up next year.
With Williams, Harry, Rutter and junior guard Kelsey Eckenrode returning next season, the Bruins’ will still have a solid core.
“I think they have good chances for a repeat,” Seabaugh said.
But for now, it doesn’t matter. Rock Bridge can revel in the fact it just won the 2008 Class 5 state championship.
“We couldn’t be happier,” Nagel said. “This is a pretty big deal. I don’t think this feeling can get old.”