COLUMBIA — Members of the Rock Bridge girls basketball team stood together on the stage in the Rock Bridge gymnasium in their new matching gold Final Four T-shirts as their classmates cheered them on during a pep assembly Wednesday.
The players listened to peers practice their “B-R-U … I-N-S!” cheer and watched senior Landon Fitzpatrick’s rap music video dedicated to the team. Later, the players had practice to look forward to where they said the focus will be on one player: Taylor Manuel.
Rock Bridge (24-3) vs. Incarnate Word (25-6)
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
Rock Bridge is ranked No. 1 in the latest Class 5 girls basketball rankings at mosports.com. Incarnate Word in No. 2 in the poll.
With its starters all 6 feet or taller, Rock Bridge used a clear height advantage on a relatively easy road to the semifinals of the Class 5 state tournament, winning in postseason play by an average of 36 points. On Thursday, against Incarnate Word Academy from St. Louis, they’re going to need that advantage.
In the regular season, the Bruins played one of their toughest games Jan. 20 against Manuel, a 6-foot-3 senior, and the Red Knights.
“I just remember having to get prepared for the big girl, Taylor,” sophomore guard Kayla Cheadle said. “Because I know she’s a really good player. So we had to get ready for her.”
Manuel got into foul trouble and had only seven points in a 46-39 Rock Bridge victory.
Neither team has lost since that game, and, now, nearly seven weeks later, the two teams meet again for a game that has a lot more meaning – a chance to play in the Class 5 state championship.
Manuel, a Purdue recruit, is being talked about as a serious contender to earn Gatorade State Girls Basketball Player of the Year honors in Missouri and the Miss Show-Me Basketball award, given annually by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association.
Along with Maddie Stock of St. Joseph’s Academy, Manuel is one of the two top candidates to win the Gatorade award, according to ESPN.com. Bruins freshman Sophie Cunningham was also mentioned.
Manuel is an exceptional post player, but she doesn't just rack up points and rebounds. She's recorded a quadruple double — one of the rarest feats at any level in basketball — with 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks Jan. 3 against Cor Jesu Academy.
“She’s an excellent ball player,” Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said. “The one thing about her is, she’s a big post player, but she leads her team in assists. So she’s responsible. Between points and assists, she’s about half the team’s points.”
The Bruins plan to use their height as well as the location of the game to their advantage against the Red Knights.
Rock Bridge has played only five games at home this year, winning all of them. While the game on Thursday isn’t at Rock Bridge, the Bruins are treating it like a home game because they will be playing just a few miles down Providence Road at Mizzou Arena.
“We traveled almost four thousand miles (this season) to play our last two games two miles away from home,” Nagel said. “And we knew that from the very beginning, and we did that so we felt like we were prepared, and that we’ve seen everything going into those two games.”
The biggest thing that Incarnate Word will be using, aside from Manuel, is its experience, Incarnate Word coach Dan Rolfes said.
“Well, they’re two-time defending state champs, and somebody’s got to knock them off, and we would like to be the team that does that,” Nagel said.
The Red Knights won Class 5 state titles in 2010 and 2011. The only Bruin that has been past the state quarterfinals before is Nagel, who coached the Rock Bridge team that won the 2008 Class 5 state championship over Incarnate Word.
Nagel said she has noticed a certain pattern in the playoffs over the years.
“Well, we have to go through Incarnate,” Nagel said. “That’s who we had to beat to win the state championship in ’08. You’ve pretty much got to go through Incarnate almost every year if you want to return to the state championship, and this year is no different.”