COLUMBIA — The Rock Bridge comeback began with senior Carmen Boessen’s only shot of the game.
Rock Bridge had been struggling on both sides of the ball in the semifinals of the Class 5 state girls basketball tournament against Incarnate Word. The Bruins shot just 2-for-12 in the first quarter and finished the first half without a steal or a block and had zero fast break points – categories that Rock Bridge usually excels in.
Class 5 state championship
Rock Bridge (25-3)
vs. Blue Springs (27-4)
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
"You wouldn’t think we were one of the best defenses in the state with that first quarter," Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said.
Rock Bridge trailed by 11 in the third quarter. But senior Lindsey Cunningham and the Bruins refused to go home as the losers. They needed a spark and got one with Boessen’s 3-pointer. Witha little more than two minutes left in the quarter, Boessen squared up and let it fly. The previously silent Rock Bridge crowd jumped to its feet cheering when the shot dropped through the rim.
"Definitely my biggest one (of the season)," Boessen said. "Just felt it in the moment. We were walking in here, and I said, 'You know it’s a funny game when I’m the only one with a 3-pointer.'"
"It was crazy," Cunningham said. "She couldn’t have made it at a better time. That definitely got us going and I think from there is where the energy really picked up within us and within the arena."
After the Bruins cut the deficit to four, Incarnate Word coach Dan Rolfes called a timeout to stop the momentum. But his plan didn't work. In the fourth quarter the comeback turned even more one-sided.
"Scoring that fourth quarter, inside we were going crazy," Cunningham said. "Every basket was a huge basket."
Cunningham, who looked like Peyton Manning changing plays from outside the arc at one point, took control from the Red Knights. Highlighted by a 12-0 scoring run, the Bruins dominated on defense in the fourth quarter. The Red Knights were scoreless the entire final quarter until Incarnate Word standout Taylor Manuel hit a transition 3-pointer with 38 seconds left in the game.
"They’re a very good defensive team and that definitely had something to do with our inability to score," Rolfes said.
Manuel, the game’s leading scorer with 19 points, limped her way through the second half on a bad left knee. She controlled the game in the first half, but struggled to get to the basket when it mattered most.
"Sometimes I got doubled, and they kind of forced me away from the basket," Manuel said. "When I would try and post, I was getting double-teamed. Sometimes, I had three people around me and they had help-side defense."
The Red Knights almost made a comeback in the final minute, answering Rock Bridge’s 2-pointers with 3-pointers. But it was not enough and they ran out of time.
"It’s frustrating, but we gave everything we had," Manuel said, trying to hold back tears. "We kept each other up, we stayed positive, we didn’t give up. So that’s all I can really ask for."
When the horn sounded to end the game, every Bruins player jumped in the air in celebration. Hugs ensued and Manuel limped to her team's bench. Rock Bridge, who made 65 percent of its shots in the second half, was the winner, 46-43.
"I think most importantly we didn't give up," Lindsey Cunningham said. "We weren’t really worried. We knew that if we stuck together we could pull it through."
Boessen's smile wasn't hard to read. "I'm just ecstatic," she said.
Incarnate Word and Manuel, winners of the past two state championships, will not be able to three-peat.
"We haven’t had to feel this disappointment in a couple years," Rolfes said. "Unfortunately that’s a part of the game. Just kind of shows you how special winning the state championship is. You can’t take anything for granted."
Rock Bridge (25-3) advances to the Class 5 championship for the first time since 2008, when they won the state title. They will play Blue Springs (27-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena.