Stifling defense helps Bears topple Thunder
Playing a collapsing style of defense to pack the paint Friday night, the Rifle Bears’ girls basketball team forced the visiting Discovery Canyon Thunder to play right into its game plan on defense. That led to a frustrating night on the offensive end for the No. 19 Thunder in a 45-32 win for the No. 14 Bears inside Jack Smith Gymnasium in the second round of the 4A state playoffs.
Knowing that Discovery Canyon’s style of play was to throw the ball inside to junior center Ashten Prechtel, the Bears closed in on the high entry passes, doubling — and sometimes tripling — Prechtel, basically daring the Thunder to shoot jumpers from outside. Curiously, the Thunder saw this style of defense right away from the Bears, yet never changed their offensive game plan, playing right into the hands of the Bears.
“Our kids prepared hard all week and executed our game plan,” Rifle Head Coach Kristy Wallner said following the win at home. “We keyed in on some of their stats and rolled the dice to force them to shoot. Other teams have done that to us in the past and been successful, but it really worked for us tonight. They executed it pretty much flawless for almost the entire game.”
Things didn’t start off well early in the first quarter for the Bears as the Thunder got the ball to Prechtel, who hit a hook-shot in the lane to give Discovery Canyon an early 2-0 lead. At that point, the Rifle defense kicked into high gear, helping the offense get off to a great start as senior guard Karly Manuppella hit a bank 3-pointer from the left corner to give the Bears a 3-2 lead. Senior Elly Walters then drew a foul on the next Rifle possession and split her free throws, but senior forward Peyton Caldwell extended the Rifle lead to 7-2 on a 3-pointer from the top of the arch, sending the home crowd into a frenzy. Rifle got another stop on defense thanks to a steal from Walters, which led to the senior finding senior guard Katy Manuppella wide open on the right block in transition for an easy layup to make it 9-2, forcing a Thunder timeout.
Following the stoppage, Discovery Canyon ripped off six straight points to pull back to within one point at 9-8, but the Bears closed on a 4-0 run as junior forward Masi Smith caught an errant shot underneath the hoop and scored on an easy layup before Walters found Katy Manuppella downcourt for a layup right at the first-quarter buzzer, giving the Bears a 13-8 lead after one quarter of play.
Building off of her buzzer-beater layup, Katy Manuppella caught fire from beyond the arc to start the second quarter, drilling back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 19-8 Rifle. Discovery Canyon senior guard Julia Carter answered with a 3-pointer of her own to make it 19-11 Rifle. A steal and a layup in transition from Walters then made it 21-11 before two jumpers from Prechtel sent the two teams into the half with the Bears on top of the Thunder, 21-15.
The third quarter turned out to be Rifle’s best defensive performance of the night as the Bears held the Thunder to just 2 points in the eight-minute quarter, as Smith, Walters and Caldwell disrupted a number of passes into the paint in search of Prechtel and junior Cora Ferguson. As the defense clamped down, the Bears slowed it down offensively in the third.
Fouled on a 3-pointer, Katy Manuppella went to the line and hit 2 of 3 free throws, while Walters hit a layup and a 3-pointer to give Rifle some breathing room at 28-17. A runner from Smith over the top of Prechtel in the paint sent the Bears into the final quarter of play with a 30-17 lead, while the Thunder had no idea what had just hit them defensively in the third quarter.
“I had lots of film on them, and I never noticed anybody play them in a man-to-man and sending doubles to the ball,” Wallner said. “I think that’s a different situation for them. I know that when teams show us something we haven’t seen before, it gives us trouble, too, so we rolled the dice and it worked.”
Rolling at both ends of the floor after a terrific third quarter, the Bears pulled away for good in the fourth quarter, stretching their lead to as large as 15 points. Karly Manuppella started the final quarter with a layup off of a feed from Smith, but the Thunder answered back with buckets from Prechtel and senior forward Abigail Gagnon. Holding a 32-21 lead, Rifle began its reoccurring trips to the free throw line as the Thunder were forced to foul.
Katy Manuppella hit two free throws before Walters split a pair to make it 35-21 Rifle. A quick 5-0 run from Discovery Canyon then made it 35-26, but that would be as close as the Thunder would get, as a layup from Karly Manuppella off of an assist from twin sister Katy made it 37-26. Smith then hit a layup before Katy and Karly hit 3 of 4 free throws combined to make it 42-28.
A jumper from Skylar Thompson gave Discovery Canyon slim hope, but Walters and Katy Manuppella hit three free throws combined, closing out the win for Rifle.
On the night, Katy Manuppella led the Bears with 17 points, while Walters added 11 points. Karly Manuppella chipped in with 8 points on the night, providing balanced scoring for Rifle. Smith and Caldwell added 6 and 3 points, respectively.
“Karly got us going tonight, and Peyton hit a huge three as well,” Wallner said. “The twins definitely had a look in their eyes tonight, and Elly did her stuff as usual, so I think when teams realize they have to guard Masi, Peyton and the twins, we become very hard to stop. I’m really proud of all the girls and how they attacked.”
Prechtel led the Thunder with 17 points, while Gagnon added 4 points.
Rifle (22-2) will take on No. 3 Air Academy (23-1) in the round of 16 of the 4A state playoffs Tuesday in Colorado Springs.