COLUMBIA — Before the beginning of the cross-town rivalry game between Rock Bridge and Hickman on Thursday night, a woman stood, holding a blond-haired baby outside the main entrance to the gym. The Rock Bridge Bruin mascot approached, waving enthusiastically at the baby.
The massive bear towered over the baby, who burst into wild, uncontrollable tears. Someone standing nearby pleaded, “Get out of here, you’re scaring the kids.”
A similar scenario played out inside Rock Bridge Gym later that night.
Rock Bridge (6-0) pulled away from Hickman in the second half using physical defense and the massive, swatting hands of Bruins forward Austin Ray to limit the Kewpies to only 26 points in the 46-26 win.
Both teams seemed initially intimidated by the chaotic atmosphere in the gym, as 15 total points were scored in the first quarter. They had reason to feel nervous. Everyone and everything around them served as reminders that this wasn’t just another basketball game.
Outside, cars were parked up and down the streets in every direction, turning Rock Bridge’s various side streets into makeshift parking lots. Tickets to the game sold out 45 minutes before the opening tip, forcing Rock Bridge Athletic Director Jennifer Mast to turn disappointed fans away at the door.
Once inside the gym, allegiances were clear and unmistakable. Each of the two bleachers were split down the middle with Rock Bridge fans filling one side and Hickman supporters doing the same on the other. The two student sections competed against each other, trading taunts and only occasionally glancing back at the action on the court.
Rock Bridge’s students went as far as to mimic the appearance of a Kewpie, dressing in pajamas, with the occasional bib or slipper rounding out the outfit.
With all the various distractions, players had to block out the surrounding chaos and try to focus on the game.
“It’s a lot different, with the crowd yelling at you and calling you different names. It’s just really hard,” Hickman sophomore guard Mason Murray said. Murray came off the bench to lead the Kewpies with 11 points. “You have to try and concentrate.”
After clinging on to a narrow 20-18 lead at halftime, the Bruins made their move in the third quarter. Senior forward Josh Hayes contributed with several put-backs and tough baskets in the paint, leading the Bruins with 10 points. Rock Bridge’s defense continued to enforce their will, limiting Hickman to three points in the quarter.
Operating in man-to-man defense, Rock Bridge’s ball pressure was suffocating. Guards Travis Jorgenson and Nick Norton swarmed in the backcourt, forcing costly turnovers and taking Hickman out of its rhythm. And if a Kewpie did manage to squeeze into the lane, Ray was there to unceremoniously greet them.
The 6-foot-6-inch forward was a constant, intimidating presence in the paint, tallying at least four blocks. As Hickman forward El Dorema released a shot a few feet away from the basket in the fourth quarter, Ray cocked his right hand. He leaped, timing his jump precisely, and swatted the ball violently out of play. The crowd erupted, but Ray didn’t crack the faintest smile. This is what he does.
“It’s a good feeling," Ray said. His voice is unenthusiastic, his face void of emotion. “It gets you up a little bit, but you have to settle in pretty quick and do what you’re supposed to.”
The noise inside the gym, the colorful attire of the opponent’s student section, and the menacing reach of Austin Ray all combined to rattle Hickman (3-4) on Thursday night. And while they didn’t play their best basketball, Rock Bridge coach Jim Scanlon is satisfied knowing that his team escaped the rivalry game with a win.
“They get excited, playing this game,” Scanlon said. “Sometimes they forget to just settle down and play, but I’m happy for them.”