COLUMBIA — The Rock Bridge girls basketball team could not even wait for the end of the game. With five seconds left, Lindsey Cunningham dribbled one time, looked at the clock and smiled while she watched the rest of the Bruins dance and celebrate.
When the horn went off, the Bruins were Class 5 state champions.
The Rock Bridge bench was quick to join the frenzy. After a blur of jumping and fist pumping, it did not take long before all of the Bruins players were piled on top of one another in front of the Rock Bridge student section.
Putting 26 free-throws through the hoop along the way, the Bruins outlasted Blue Springs for a 52-41 victory Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
“I don’t think I can (put it into words),” Cunningham said. “But every year, our goal has been to get here, and it’s surreal to actually be sitting here with a gold medal around my neck.”
The Bruins (26-3) began the game with a 14-0 run, and they never lost the lead. After making just one 3-point shot in the semifinals against Incarnate Word, Rock Bridge hit their first four 3-pointers against Blue Springs (27-5).
Rock Bridge sophomore Chayla Cheadle, who finished with a game-high 19 points, led the assault with eight points in the first four minutes.
“I thought the hot start of Rock Bridge hurt us quite a bit,” Blue Springs coach Mark Spigarelli said. “Four-for-4 on their first threes. They deserve to win when a team does that. We never quite got over the hump. That to me in a nut shell was the game."
The Wildcats cut the deficit to five points with just under two minutes left, but they couldn't come all the way back. They continued to foul but lost the battle at the free-throw line. Rock Bridge made 26 of their 38 free throws, good for half their point total.
"They shot free throws real well," Spigarelli said. "They shot free throws better than we did all night. That hurt."
Freshman Sophie Cunningham, who made only one field goal and still finished with 16 points, helped the most.
“Thirteen-for-17 is excellent,” Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said about Sophie Cunningham’s free-throw shooting. “That’s what sealed the deal.”
The Wildcats have now reached the championship four times in a row, failing each time to secure the title. Saturday was the first chance Rock Bridge's players had to play in the state championship game. The last time the Bruins got this far was when Nagel led Rock Bridge to the championship in 2008 when this year’s seniors were in eighth grade.
“Every team is different, and you enjoy each one of them,” Nagel said. “I think at that point I said ‘I don’t think this feeling can get old.’ And it can’t. It’s just the same feeling in ’08 as now because these kids never have gotten to experience it yet.”
The Bruins have not lost since December and finished the season on an 18-game winning streak. They enjoyed a height advantage over most teams they faced and had a deep bench, but they also toughened themselves with a schedule that included only five home games.
“I credit our schedule leading up to this point,” Cunningham said. “We’ve been playing tough teams, so we had to step up. Those big games have been in our regular season schedule.”
The biggest difference maker, though, might have been something Rock Bridge has been talking about all season — their team chemistry. Including the Cunninghams, the Bruins have three sets of sisters on their roster.
“For us to win this state championship just shows how far team chemistry can go and how much it can do,” senior Carmen Boessen said.
After four years of trying to just get to the championship game, Lindsey Cunningham walked out on to the floor hugging her sister Sophie Cunningham before the tip. They left the floor hugging, screaming and fist pumping with their season-long goal accomplished.
“I can’t believe we finally did it,” Cunningham said. “I knew it was possible, I’m just glad we finally did it.”