Defense lifts Rifle to win over Manitou
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colorado – As far as an offensive performance, this game was actually quite offensive.
But in the end, it was Rifle’s defense that never rested and came to the defense of the sporadic offensive production.
When all the missed shots, turnovers, fouls and frustration had cleared, the Rifle Bears girls basketball team was still undefeated (24-0) and headed to the Class 3A Great Eight in Fort Collins.
Saturday’s 42-24 victory over Manitou Springs was a frustrating game for fans, players and coaches alike.
The Bears came out tighter than a snare drum, but, after falling behind 8-2, they regrouped and started a methodical beat-down of the Mustangs.
But offensively, the Bears rarely found their rhythm. After hitting just one of its first 10 shots, Rifle trailed 8-4 after the first period.
“I think it was more nerves than anything. I always know that these girls are going to start out with some nerves,” Rifle coach Stephanie Heald said, offering a small grin when asked if she was frustrated with the start. “It was just a matter of getting us calmed down and getting us back into our groove.”
Defensively, the Bears did what had to be done. Clamping down on the Mustangs, grabbing rebounds and forcing tough shots.
After Racheal Keithley hit a pair of free throws and Cortney Cordova finished a 3-point play by swishing a free throw, the Bears had the lead at 11-8 early in the second. From that point on, Rifle slowly pulled away, easing the anxiety of the Rifle faithful in the stands of the Bears’ Den.
But nothing came easy on the offensive end. After the game, Cordova smiled, saying she can’t remember the last time she missed so many shots, including a handful of layups. The high-scoring senior still lead the way with 23 points for the Bears.
Wide-open layups were missed, open jumpers clanked and contested jumpers never had a chance. But all along, the Bears made sure that things were just as miserable for the Mustangs on their end of the court.
“Some of our shots just weren’t falling and we knew that we had to play defense and just pick it up,” Cordova said.
Senior Tresa Berner banked in a nifty left-handed hook that was followed by a second bucket and free throw by Cordova, set up by a scintillating pass from sophomore Jasmine Figueira, helping the Bears take a 20-11 halftime lead.
In the third, the Mustangs made a quick burst on short jumpers by Gabby Santos and Natalie Schofield, then Cordova picked up her third foul, and coach Heald decided it was time to chat.
“I just told them to play their game, that’s all I have to do,” Heald said. “In that timeout [after halftime], I just said, ‘Hey, it’s time to start moving our feet and playing our game. And that’s what we did.”
The discussion soaked in quickly. Cordova drove the baseline for a bucket, Keithley drew a charge on the defensive end, then a fabulous out-of-bounds play seemed to suck the air out of the Mustangs’ momentum like a pin to a balloon.
Heald said they work on the out-of-bounds plays thoroughly every week. This one worked with surgical precision.
Senior Haydn Holgate snapped a pass to Cordova in the right corner for a wide-open 3-pointer and the lead was suddenly 25-15.
But the Cordova-Holgate combination was lightning quick in striking a second time. This time Cordova took the Holgate pass and drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
After four straight free throws by Keithley, who also had 12 rebounds in the game, the lead was 32-20. As the third-quarter clock was winding down, the Bears’ offense showed another flash of brilliance as Figueira spotted Cordova slashing through the lane. The pin-point pass and layup gave the Bears a 34-20 lead after three and a relatively stress-free fourth quarter for the faithful.
As most of the shots continued to have an aversion to twine, Rifle made the most of its trips to the free-throw line, making 16 of 23 for the game. The Mustangs, on the other hand, were very charitable to the Bears when they trekked to the charity strip. The Mustangs finished an abysmal 4-of-21 from the line.
Holding a potent offensive team that scored 54 points the night before to just 24 showed how stiff the Bears’ defense was in the game.
Heald said that senior point guard Makayla Wilkins played an exceptional game, taking on one of the Mustangs’ top scorers.
“Shorty,” as she’s known by teammates and fans, Wilkins was not short on effort on the defensive end of the floor.
“Shorty wasn’t making her baskets tonight, but she held No. 14 tonight and played great defense,” Heald said.
The Bears will open the Great Eight state tournament in Fort Collins on Thursday, and according to the brackets, the Bears will face Eaton (21-3) in the first round.
Olathe, which finished second to Rifle in the Western Slope League, lost its Sweet 16 game to Bishop Machebeuf, 44-38.
The Great Eight teams vying for the Class 3A state title are Rifle, Eaton, Estes Park (18-6), Bishop Machebeuf (18-6), Pagosa Springs (23-0), Pinnacle (19-6), Jefferson Academy (17-7) and three-time defending Class 3A champion and top-ranked Holy Family (23-1).
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