SPRINGFIELD — Momentum never shows up on a scorecard, but the Rock Bridge girls basketball team used it to win in the Class 5 state quarterfinals Saturday in Springfield.
The Bruins defeated Ozark 57-31 to advance to Thursday's state semifinals at Mizzou Arena. Rock Bridge (24-3) will play Incarnate Word Academy (25-6) in a 3:30 p.m. game. The winner advances to play either Fort Zumwalt West (26-5) or Blue Springs (26-4) in next Saturday's championship.
Neither team had control of the game entering halftime Saturday, but Rock Bridge clearly claimed the momentum in the third quarter.
The Bruins outscored their opponent 34-13 in the second half. Rock Bridge got rid of any nervousness it had in the first half to dominate the second.
“We weren’t playing bad in the first half, but things just weren’t falling for us,” senior Lindsey Cunningham said. “Then we finally came out in the second half and things started falling, and we had our hands up and focused on defense as much as possible.”
Defense continues to be the difference for the Bruins this season. Jumping in front of passes to fill the steals column and even causing a few rare 5-second violations, the Bruins were everywhere on the court. Rock Bridge caused 22 turnovers – eight more than Ozark’s season average.
Freshman Sophie Cunningham credited Bruins coach Jill Nagle for her team's dominance on defense.
“One of our main goals was to keep our hands up," she said. "Because, like she says, when our hands are down we’re just average, but when we’re up, we’re scary.”
Lindsey Cunningham noted how that plays to the Bruins' height advantage.
“With all of us about six feet tall, if we have our hands up it’s intimidating and scary and just hard to go against,” she said.
The Bruins' second-half play kept Ozark (25-5) in check.
“At the end of the third quarter and the fourth quarter, we just didn’t have an answer,” Tigers coach Yancey Little said.
The Bruins outrebounded the Tigers and slowed Ozark's plans on offense. If there were a shot clock, Ozark would have been in violation several times.
“They’re obviously tall,” Little said. “Any time you make lazy passes over the top, they’ve got the speed, the height, the quickness to pick them off. Their guards guard posts and their posts guard guards and that makes it difficult.”
The momentum was sealed for the Bruins when freshman Sophie Cunningham made a half-court buzzer-beating shot to end the third quarter.
“I think it’s a huge momentum shift,” Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said about Sophie Cunningham’s shot. “I think we had taken momentum to begin with, but anytime a kid hits a shot like that, she was off balance, shooting with her left hand and makes it in. You got to get excited about that.”
The shot was all the buzz for the rest of the game. Fans were talking about how far Sophie Cunningham was away from the basket when she took the shot until the end of the game.
“I kind of just threw it up there,” Sophie Cunningham said. “I thought, ‘dang this could possibly go in. It was just amazing. It got us all pumped up, and I think we all fed off of that.”
“That definitely got us going,” Lindsey Cunningham said.
No one on this season's Rock Bridge team can say they have been to the state semifinals.
“It felt great,” Lindsey Cunningham said. “My freshman and sophomore year, this is where we got stopped, and then last year we didn’t even get out of districts. So to get this far feels really great.”
The Bruins, now on a 16-game win streak, will play either Incarnate Word or St. Joseph’s Academy. Rock Bridge beat both teams earlier this season.
“Way more excited than nervous,” Lindsey Cunningham said about moving forward. “It just feels great to finally get back to Columbia to play in front of our home town against some really top-ranked teams.”