JEFFERSON CITY — Halfway through the third quarter, the Rock Bridge girls basketball team held a 9-point lead but had yet to score any second-half points.
The Bruins weren't too worried, though. Their defense made sure of that.
Rock Bridge held Smith-Cotton to 9 points in the second half, including only 2 points in the fourth quarter, to defeat the Tigers 37-21 Wednesday night in the semifinals of the district tournament.
The Bruins (21-5) advance to take on Jefferson City in the Class 5 District 9 finals Friday, where they will have an opportunity to win the district contest for the fourth consecutive year.
“We struggled at times to score, but defensively we are always going to keep ourselves in the game,” Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said. “I thought there were opportunities where we had some good things, and we just didn’t hit some shots.”
The Bruins looked shaky in the first half of the game as Smith-Cotton played a 2-3 zone defense. The ball movement was not as crisp as it had been in games leading up to the district tournament.
Several times, junior guard Lindsey Cunningham, who finished with 8 points, found herself dribbling at the top of the key, screaming for someone to make a cut. She could tell something was off.
“I think sometimes we focus so much on defense that either we’re tired on offense or we’re just so focused on defense. But it’s something that we’ve been working on, and it’s only going to get better from here on out,” Cunningham said.
A strong defensive effort helped the Bruins gain momentum, especially in the second quarter when Rock Bridge fans jumped out of their seats to cheer a huge block by senior Megan Marshall. It was the loudest ovation of the game and prompted one man to yell, "Man, that was nice."
That moment displayed the Bruins' ability to play physical defense without fouling. And eventually, Rock Bridge's height advantage helped on the offensive end. Because the Tigers (15-11) did not have a single player more than 6 feet tall, they had trouble keeping the Bruins off the glass.
Chayla Cheadle led the Bruins with 10 points. She was able to get inside the zone and make tough shots around the basket.
“At first we weren’t playing our tempo,” Cheadle said. “We just needed to slow down a little bit and control the game.”
Although most of the Bruins have played in district tournament games before, nerves might have been a factor. Playing their first game of the district tournament, in a win-or-go-home situation, the Bruins seemed hesitant.
“The first game is always the toughest; everyone’s a little bit tighter,” Nagel said.
Cunningham was glad the Bruins were able to regain their composure.
“We were a little jittery in that first half, but we got out there and finally calmed down a little bit in the second half,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham believes a little practice will help Rock Bridge avoid a similar offensive showing in its next game.
“We’ll be able to fix it easily in practice,” Cunningham said.