COLUMBIA -- What happens when Sophie Cunningham has an off night?
That was the question the Rock Bridge girls basketball team faced during Friday night's Class 5 state semifinal matchup against Blue Springs at Mizzou Arena.
WHO: Rock Bridge (24-5) vs. St. Joseph's Academy (23-5)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
Cierra Porter stepped up and gave an emphatic answer, sending the defending state champion Bruins back to the title game with a 43-32 victory against the Wildcats in a rematch of last season's state championship matchup.
Porter made up for an off night from Cunningham, who managed just six points on 2-11 shooting, with a double-double highlighted by a team-high 12 points and 15 rebounds.
"I didn't give up, we didn't give up," Porter said. "We were locked in tonight on the defensive end, and we seemed to get most of the big rebounds."
After struggling with foul trouble and poor shooting in a pair of playoff games last week, Porter bounced back with a dominant display on the offensive boards. The Missouri oral commit clapped her hands and flashed a smile after scoring the Bruins' first field goal, setting the tone in the early stages of a gritty, slow-paced contest.
When the 6-foot-4 Porter ripped the ball out of a Blue Springs player's hands midway through the third quarter, her teammates jumped off the bench and clapped their hands, screaming encouragement to a Bruins (24-5) team that was nursing a two-point lead.
On the next trip down the court, Porter found an open Chayla Cheadle on the right wing, lobbing a cross-court pass to the junior who drained an open 3-pointer and flashed an approving thumbs up in Porter's direction.
Seconds later, Porter's defensive presence forced Blue Springs' star Karyla Middlebrook to short arm a jump shot. On the ensuing fastbreak, Porter outran everybody down the floor and was rewarded with an athletic reverse layup.
When Blue Springs (28-3) coach Mark Spigarelli called timeout immediately after the bucket, Porter jumped up and down, smiling the whole time and looking like a completely different player than the tentative version that sat most of last week's games.
"I tried to prepare mentally before (the game)," said Porter about forgetting her recent struggles. "We knew we had the height advantage out there and I had to take advantage of that."
After an up-and-down season that has included stretches where the lanky forward has looked unengaged on the court, it was Porter's late-game awareness and offensive rebounding that helped the Bruins stave off a late Blue Springs comeback.
On consecutive fourth quarter possessions, Porter skied over multiple Wildcats defenders for offensive rebounds off Cunningham misses, grabbing the ball and pivoting on her left foot for an easy layup.
Porter flashed her skills on the defensive end as well, snagging a rebound in traffic and turning down court before firing a 40-foot pass to a streaking Cunningham for an open layup to put the Bruins up six.
"Cierra dominated the boards for us tonight," Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said. "We did a good job of staying disciplined and battling for offensive rebounds."
Fittingly, Porter secured the win for good when she intercepted a late-game pass and snared yet another offensive rebound before getting fouled. After making both of the free throws to put Rock Bridge ahead by eight points with under two minutes remaining, Porter pumped her fist and looked at the bench, offering a toothy grin.
Her shoulders slumped as she took a deep breath and turned to run down the court, as if all of her recent struggles had evaporated into the bright lights of Mizzou Arena.
Without her sister, fellow Missouri verbal commit Bri Porter, on the floor due to a season-ending knee injury, Cierra Porter and junior Audrey Holt have had to carry the load inside for Rock Bridge.
Porter knows the Bruins aren't done just yet, though.
"We're going to have to do the same thing," Porter said about Saturday's Class 5 state championship game. "We've got to come out and want it if we're gonna win (a state title) again."
Rock Bridge returns to Mizzou Arena for Saturday night's 8:30 p.m. championship game against St. Joseph's Academy (23-5).