Rolla’s Lady Bulldogs completed a major turnaround for the program Friday in Union.
Rolla, with an overall record of 23-3 and ranked as the No. 4 team in Class 4 by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association, won its first district championship since the 2004-05 season by defeating Owensville (16-12), 62-60, in the Class 4 District 10 title game.
The return to the top of the mountain has been a gradual one for the Lady Bulldogs, who suffered through an 0-24 winless season in 2014-15. Rolla gradually built back up its win total each year, winning six games in 2015-16, eight games the next year and 13 games last year in a season where Rolla finished second to Osage in District 11.
“We got beat last year in the championship game, so to get one this year is pretty sweet for the girls,” Rolla Head Coach Luke Floyd said. “I’m just proud of these girls. Five years ago we didn’t even win a game and now to be able to say they’re district champions — that’s pretty cool.”
Rolla, which came into the tournament as the No. 1 seed, held a 13-7 advantage at the end of the first quarter and continued to lead at the intermission, 27-22.
The Lady Bulldogs ended the third quarter with a scoring flurry thanks to their full-court press with Owensville’s star senior forward Breanna Diestelkamp off the floor in foul trouble. Rolla held a 12-point edge, 46-34, going into the final period.
The Dutchgirls, who were the lowest-seeded team in the tournament at No. 6, would not go away quietly. Owensville came back within striking distance with just over five minutes remaining on a Diestelkamp three-pointer that made it a 50-46 Rolla lead. Owensville continued to chip away at the score, cutting the Rolla lead to just one point on three separate occasions in the final three minutes.
“I’m really proud of my kids,” Owensville Head Coach Ryan Flanagan said. “I’m really not upset at all. It stings because we were so close, but we shouldn’t even have been here, so the fact that we were able to get here and we’ve got a lot of young kids. We lose three seniors who really put in a lot of time, but the future is bright for us. I’m only excited moving forward.”
Rolla was able to hold onto the lead with timely stops on a couple of possessions where the Dutchgirls could have pulled in front on the scoreboard in the closing minutes.
“We never seem to make things easy,” Floyd said. “Owensville just kept battling and every time we thought we got a little distance, they just kept closing the gap. They got some great shots, but I love our girls’ resiliency and just continuing to battle and we got a two-point win.”
Diestelkamp led all scorers in the contest with 18 points. Her three in the fourth quarter to cut the Rolla lead to four points ended up as her final basket of the night.
“I thought we did a good job on her,” Floyd said. “Even the looks she got weren’t real easy ones. They were penetrating against our defense, getting the ball inside, and we put them on the free-throw line more than we would have liked to. When we had to get stops there late, the girls did a great job of getting them and ended up being the difference in the game.”
Liana Miller totaled 15 points on the night for the Dutchgirls. Anna Finley dropped in 12 points, Kate Angell seven, Ella Wright three, Anna Skornia three and Stephani Elliott two.
For Rolla, Carli Libhart led the scoring effort with 16 points. Other Rolla scorers included Rebecca Janke (10 points), Savannah Campbell (eight), Loran Pritchett (eight), Kianna Garner (eight), Ellie Rodgers (seven), Madison Mace (three) and Olivia Burken (two).
It was Rodgers, a junior guard, who delivered the biggest points for the Lady Bulldogs, going to the free-throw line three separate times in the final minute and coming away with four points in six attempts.
“We’re super excited. This hasn’t happened since 2004, so we’re just very excited to claim that title,” Rodgers said after the game with visible marks on her neck from the battles over the ball in the closing minute. “I just knew we needed to get the ball in our possession to make the free throws like I know we can. They clawed me on one of my last fouls, but I was just excited to get to the line and up the score.”
After Diestelkamp’s three, the two teams exchanged scores before Owensville got the stop and cut the score down to 52-50 on a layup from Miller. Rolla responded with a two points on the other end, but then Wright knocked down a three-pointer to trim the lead down to one for the first time in the quarter, 54-53.
After Rolla scores, Angell netted two layups, both of which cut the Rolla lead back to one point again at the 2:25 and 1:40 marks.
Rodgers’ trips to the free-throw line and Rolla’s late stops allowed the Lady Bulldogs to go up by five points, 62-57, with 13.1 seconds remaining.
Finley buried a three in the closing seconds to bring it back down to a two-point game again on Owensville’s final possession. Rolla’s ensuing in-bounds attempt ran the final ticks off the clock.
Even with the loss, Flanagan and the Dutchgirls accomplished much in the district tournament, upsetting No. 3 Sullivan and No. 2 St. Clair to reach the championship round.
“This is the first time we’ve beaten Sullivan or St. Clair since I’ve been here,” Flanagan said. “Things are looking up. The Four Rivers Conference that we play in is brutal and we struggle in it yearly, but we’ve turned that corner to where we’re not the doormat anymore. We’re starting to be competitive in it and fight for a conference championship and we fought for a district championship tonight.”
Rolla will play at Missouri S&T Tuesday in the sectional round against the District 9 champion, Osage (23-3), a rematch of last season’s championship game in District 11. Tipoff for that game is scheduled for 7:45 p.m., following the conclusion of the boys sectional between Sullivan and Warrensburg.