Rock Bridge girls basketball: With furious comeback, Bruins repeat as state champs

Saturday, March 16, 2013 | 10:52 p.m. CDT; updated 11:56 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 16, 2013
The Rock Bridge girls basketball team won the state championship for the second year in a row, playing Saturday evening at Mizzou Arena. The Bruins defended their title, beating St. Joseph's Academy 45-38.

COLUMBIA — After another last-gasp run to the top of the mountain, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a line together, big smiles and sighs of relief on each of their faces as they clapped their hands in unison.

It was only fitting that with the curtain closing on a season when multiple players took turns in starring roles, Rock Bridge girls basketball celebrated its second consecutive Class 5 state championship united, a team together. 

And it took a team effort to get there. 

Trailing by double-digits at halftime and by as many as eight points in the final quarter, the Bruins completed a furious second-half comeback behind 16 second-half points from standout guard Sophie Cunningham, prevailing 45-38 against St. Joseph's Academy.

For most of the game, it looked like the Bruins (25-5) were going to be denied a repeat by a confident St. Joseph's Academy (23-6) team led by senior Erin Nelson. 

With 15 first-half points, Nelson helped the Angels race out to a 25-15 halftime lead, burying multiple 3-pointers as St. Joseph's worked an inside-outside game with Nelson and 6-foot-3 Penn commit Sydney Stipanovich.

With an eight-point deficit and just seven minutes left in their season, the Bruins countered with their own pairing, leaning on Cunningham and 6-foot-4 sophomore Cierra Porter.

Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel made an adjustment and began posting up the 6-foot-1 Cunningham on smaller Angels players, leading to a quick spurt that closed the gap to four points.

After Nelson countered with a pair of free throws and another basket, she strutted down the court with a fist pump and screamed at her team to get back into the game.

Porter, saddled with foul trouble in the opening half, entered the picture at the right time for Rock Bridge's fairy-tale ending, swatting away three St. Joseph's shots in a two-minute span as Cunningham demanded the ball on the offensive end.

After Cunningham made two turnaround layups, the Bruins turned up the pressure and switched to a full-court press on defense, forcing the Angels into a pair of turnovers that led to easy transition layups for Audrey Holt and Kayla Cheadle, and suddenly the Bruins had their first lead since early in the second quarter, 37-36 with 3:05 remaining.

When Chayla Cheadle put the game away with one of her trademark 3-pointers from the right wing with just 1:20 remaining, the celebration was on for a Rock Bridge team that wasn't to be denied.

With a raucous student section cheering on her team in the final seconds, Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel sent in senior Hannah Dressler, injured for much of the season, with 11 seconds remaining, prompting tears from the Bruins' bench and a standing ovation from the Rock Bridge faithful.

When the final buzzer sounded, the entire Rock Bridge team ran to the center of Mizzou Arena and piled on top of each other, savoring one last celebration together.

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