SPRINGFIELD — Rock Bridge's biggest player usually goes unnoticed.
Austin Ray, a 6-foot-6 forward, gets more attention catching touchdowns as a tight end on the football team. On the basketball court, his abilities to act as a defensive obstacle and get defensive rebounds don't exactly stand out beside Travis Jorgenson's crossover, Will Echelmeier's shot and Karon Hayes' drop-step.
But when Hayes got into foul trouble early in the Class 5 quarterfinal game against Branson on Saturday in Springfield, Ray took over the offensive burden as well.
The junior scored 10 points and overwhelmed Branson's undersized front-court in Rock Bridge's 57-45 victory, sending the team back home for the Show-Me Showdown next weekend at Mizzou Arena.
Hayes picked up two fouls in the first quarter and a third 18 seconds into the third. Consequently, he sat on the bench for nearly half the game.
During Hayes' absence, Ray scored all five of his baskets for Rock Bridge (24-4). He missed only one shot the entire game.
And with senior Matt Kelly also out with foul trouble in the second quarter, Ray's defensive presence in the paint contributed to holding the Pirates to just two points.
"I thought Austin had his best ballgame," Rock Bridge coach Jim Scanlon said. "He finished shots when two of our better players were sitting on the bench. I can't say enough about him."
Trailing Branson 14-7 after the first quarter, Rock Bridge outscored the Pirates 14-2 in the second quarter and rattled them in doing so.
Branson guard and leading scorer Avery Dingman, a future Creighton University player, still had 21 points, but 10 of those came in the final quarter when the Pirates (21-10) were playing catch-up. Dingman was held scoreless during the pivotal second-quarter run, and he couldn't create any opportunities for his teammates, either.
Manuale Watkins guarded Dingman during that time, but Ray played just as big a defensive role.
"Without (Ray) we would have lost for sure," Watkins said. "He altered shots with his big body. He finished shots that sometimes during the year he would miss. I thought he played the best out there."
Ray hasn't had any illusions about his job in the Bruins' lineup. He said he knows his teammates rely on him to get rebounds and stop opposing players in the paint.
"I just come out and do the dirty work and get into the trenches," he said.
But with everything going Branson's way early on, Ray put himself in position for the guards' drive-and-dishes. He also made a jump shot along the baseline.
"With (Hayes and Kelly) out, we knew we had to pick up what they were taking off with them," Ray said. "We knew we had nothing to lose, so we attacked, tried to beat them on the boards and tried to limit outside shots. We had to make them play more inside where we had an advantage."
Scanlon said he thought Branson never recovered from the huge swing in the second quarter.
"They looked tight," he said. "Their shots were short, and after that flurry, the game was pretty much over. When you play defense, you usually win."
With the game so nearby, Branson fans probably outnumbered Rock Bridge fans 10 to 1. Ray said he is looking forward to playing in front of a friendlier crowd Friday when the Bruins take on either DeSmet or Troy Buchanan at Mizzou Arena. He hopes the home crowd would work better than it did for Branson.
"It's definitely nice to ... have a hometown advantage," he said.