Mustangs go a perfect 7-0 in the Tri-County

Eldon was determined.

The Mustangs had one last team to cross off the list of fallen Tri-County Conference foes this season in their quest for a conference title and standing in the way was an Osage team fighting to gain a piece of the conference championship itself.

It came down to the final shot, but Eldon prevailed in a 59-56 thriller at Osage Thursday night and captured the program’s first outright conference title in at least 20 years by going a perfect 7-0 in conference play. No matter what happened, the Mustangs were already guaranteed at least a share of the title that they previously shared with the Indians in 2015, but taking the conference crown for themselves sounded so much better.

“You worked too hard to get here. You don’t want to share anything with anybody so let it be your own and rise to the occasion,” Eldon coach Ashley Agee told her club before the game. “I think they bought into that. They really wanted to win and I think we wanted it more tonight.”

Indeed, Agee’s club stepped up on both ends of the floor and made the necessary plays when it mattered most throughout the night. Especially at the end when the game was hanging in the balance.

With the score tied up at 50 and just over a minute left to play, Eldon senior Brooklyn Bledsoe knocked down a 3-pointer to give her team the lead for good. Osage managed to cut the deficit to a single point twice and had a chance to take the lead with 13.4 seconds to go, but a costly double-dribble turnover gave the Mustangs the ball right back and fellow senior Taylor Pehle hit both her free throws to create the final margin. A game-tying trey at the buzzer from Osage senior Kelsey Laramore lined up straight, but fell just short of the rim as time expired.

Bledsoe said her team showed their appreciation for any lead they had with their defensive effort and it paid off as the Mustangs forced four Osage turnovers in the final quarter. However, there was just one thing on the senior’s mind and perhaps on the mind of some of her teammates as the realization of what they had just accomplished came to realization.

“I think the only thing going through our minds is ‘finally,’” the senior said after the team picked up their first win over their Highway 54 rival in four tries dating back to the 2015 season. “Osage is always a good team and always good competition. They are 15 minutes down the road and it is always a great game… We just worked so hard and finally got the win so it feels awesome.”

The final crucial seconds in the contest had a tough ending for Osage coach Scott Rowland’s club and the coach said there were a couple of ideas in mind for how they wanted to execute it. Having a chance to take the lead in the final seconds, Rowland said the idea was to drive to the basket as deep as possible and find the open shooter predicting Eldon would send an extra player to help defensively. That is exactly what took place, but it happened near halfcourt and perhaps caught the Indians a little off guard.

“We had plenty of time, but with that amount of time left I thought just getting something in the flow of the game was going to be better,” Rowland said of the final 13.4 seconds. “Looking back maybe I should have called a timeout and tried to set something up. It is tough to run a play with seven or eight seconds left, but they (Eldon) did a nice job, made their free throws at the end and that was it.”

Of course, it is never fun to be on the losing side of a tightly-contested ballgame, but Rowland also took some time to note how much fun it was to be in a game with their rival when the conference championship is on the line.

“Coach Agee and I talked before the game and no disrespect to any other conference school because I think we have a very god conference, but I said it was kind of neat that it was us,” the coach said of the Osage-Eldon rivalry. “That it is the two southern most schools that have been big rivals since forever and I think the game did it justice.

“It was just a good game and it was very fitting to have that be what decided the conference championship. To have it be a 3-point game and have a look to tie it up at the buzzer, that is pretty good stuff,” the coach added.

There is no question that the game lived up to its hype as both sides traded blows from start to finish with an energetic and electric crowd on hand to show their support.

Osage jumped out to a 17-15 lead after the first quarter and 6-foot-2 senior Jordyn Bartlett quickly got to work inside the paint for the Indians scoring 13 of her team’s points in the first frame Still, Eldon kept the pace thanks in part to sophomore Macie Halderman’s nine points in the first half and only trailed 28-26 at the break.

Agee had her club adjust to a 2-3 zone on the defensive end to combat Bartlett’s presence inside and it seemed to be a pretty effective method over the final two quarters as the Indians were forced to take more shots outside. Osage knocked some of those shots down, but not quite enough in the end.

“I thought we were still getting some pretty good looks. We did not finish a couple and we started pressing a little bit,” he noted. “As soon as we stop getting the ball inside it does not let our other shooters free up as easily and it is on me. We have to make sure we impress upon them that the ball has to go inside. Even if she (Jordyn) is not going to score, they are going to collapse and it is going to make good things happen because she is a good passer. I just did not do a good enough job of getting the ball inside in the second half.”

The second half told much of the same story as the first with neither side being able create much breathing room. However, Eldon senior Maddi Partridge’s shot at the buzzer to end the third quarter provided some spark that saw a 4-point lead at the end of the third quarter grow into a 9-point lead early in the fourth.

“Maddi has kind of been singled out all year that she cannot score so I always tell her to make the other team pay for it,” Agee remarked. “That should make her mad and I think she has bought into it. She proved that she can score and did that tonight so it made them (Osage) come out and guard her. It opened up other things for us.”

Bledsoe said that was exactly what the team needed.

“I think the one thing that really started it was Maddi,” the senior pointed out. “She knows she is the best defensive player on our team. She is so good at defense and whenever she stepped up on offense tonight, I think that helped us all greatly and motivated all of us to get up and go.”

Osage would not go quietly though and made Eldon earn their perfect conference standing. Miller hit a trio of treys to keep the Indians fighting and Bartlett stole an inbound pass off the press and finished a layup to cut the deficit to a single point late in the game. Their efforts and the efforts of their teammates were nearly enough too, but the clock was just not on their side towards the end.

Bartlett finished her night with 22 points while Miller added 13, sophomore Kerrigan Gamm chipped in 12 and fellow sophomore Carson Wood finished with seven.

It was senior night for four Osage seniors in Bartlett, Miller, Laramore and Clare Colonius and the Indians also showed a nice gesture by also taking the time to recognize Eldon’s four seniors in Partridge, Bledsoe, Pehle and Merel Greon. Rowland said he was very thankful of his seniors and the efforts they have displayed over the last four years.

“All four of them just play their hearts out and they play hard. They are good teammates, good people and good kids and I cannot thank them enough,” he stated. “They have made my job and the coaches’ jobs really easy for these last four years. They all bring something different to the table and are going to be sorely missed. It is a great crew of seniors and I am lucky to have gotten to work with them the last four years.”

Despite not getting the result they were looking for, the good news for Osage (19-6, (5-2 Tri-County) is that district play will run through their home floor and Rowland is hoping his club may get another shot at Eldon. The two sides could very well meet again in a district title game depending on how seeding goes. The Indians will wait to find out who their opponent will be in the first round.

“My biggest wish would be to get another chance to see them because I have a feeling they (Eldon) are going to be the No. 1 seed so if we do see them again it is probably going to be in the district championship game,” he noted. “Hopefully in the time between now and then we can get ourselves back in the right frame of mind and go make a good run in districts.”

Meanwhile, Eldon will be enjoying another step in what has been a solid stretch of play since the Mustangs took fourth in the conference tournament to start off 2017. Agee said the biggest difference has been playing as a team.

“Team unity we talk about all the time. It is not one or two people or the person who scores all the points,” the coach stated. “Sometimes there is a lot of stuff that does not show up on the stat sheet that we have to take credit for. Playing as a team down the stretch has really helped us get to where we are at.”

Some words of encouragement also did not hurt the cause either.

“I knew that whenever we lost to California in the Tri-County Conference tournament, we came out of that knowing we did not play like we know how to play,” Bledsoe recalled. “Coach Agee always tells us that we are so much better than what we think we are and we just have to play together. Once we realized that and realized that if we play good we are going to win, all of us have just us really stepped up our game since then.”

That mindset has permeated throughout the team and it was evident Thursday night in the final moments of the game when Pehle stepped up to the charity stripe to shoot those final free throws.

“I knew that I needed to get them,” Pehle said of the free throws. “Brooklyn came up to me and told me that, ‘You got this. You do it all the time.’ So once I just brought myself together and thought about making it and doing what I usually do then it was not too hard.”

Bledsoe paced Eldon with 16 points, Halderman knocked down 15, Pehle scored 13 and Partridge finished her night with eight respectively. The Mustangs (19-5, 7-0 Tri-County) will not be forgetting this night anytime soon, but they know now is definitely not the time to be content or satisfied with one more home game against Battle Monday night at 7:30 p.m., before district play gets underway.

“I think it is important to not take (a day) off because we have already won conference and are going to have a pretty good seeding going into districts,” Halderman said. “It is important to just keep playing how we play, keep our momentum going, keep playing as a team and everyone doing their roles.”

Time will soon tell if these two sides are destined to meet again this season.