The gym was packed and the crowd was loud, but Osage had been on this kind of stage before.
The Indians visited Rolla Friday night in the Class 4 District 11 championship game and it was the fourth straight district title game for the program. That experience guided Osage to the finish line as it captured its second straight title and third in four years with a 46-40 win over the Bulldogs.
“It feels pretty awesome. I mean, them having a bigger crowd than us and as loud as it was, I thought the way we handled it was just awesome,” Osage junior Kerrigan Gamm said.
In fact before the game even started Osage coach Scott Rowland was trying to let his players know who they would guard as the lineups were introduced, but they had a little trouble hearing him.
“It was kind of funny. I was trying to tell them who they had and they were having to relay it on and just laughing about it,” Rowland recalled. “I think they just had to learn on the fly. They had each other and you have five of them that can work together. Hopefully, the season has prepared us well enough that we can handle that because their crowd was great and they made some runs, hit some shots and got real excited when they started swatting shots. I thought we handled it pretty well and I was glad.”
And it was that experience that helped the Indians overcome any obstacles they faced. After Rolla took the initial lead, Osage stepped up on the defensive end with some full court pressure and it gave the Bulldogs some fits as they coughed up a few turnovers. As a result, the Indians managed to take an initial 12-10 lead after the first quarter and led by as many as seven points in the second before going into halftime with a slim 27-25 advantage.
One of those obstacles Osage faced was foul trouble as the Indians had to back off their press for a while. Gamm, a primary forward for the Indians, had to spend a decent chunk of time on the bench in the second and third quarters to avoid fouling out. Rolla, which features three players 5-foot-10 or taller including a 6-foot-3 center, presented the Indians a challenge offensively as they had to find ways to get good looks at the basket. Osage may have suffered a few blocked shots, but it found a way to get the job done.
“I think what we had to do was just try and make sure we got good looks,” Rowland noted. “We were not going to get taller during the game so you just have to hope you knock down some 15 or 20-footers. We did not shoot it great, but we also stretched them a little bit and got some offensive rebounds.”
Sharp, crisp passes that forced Rolla to react may have also helped a little bit as well as Osage utilized a high-low style of offense where it could find a post player near the top of the key and either drive or find open players cutting to the basket or beyond the 3-point line.
“We run that a lot and that works well for us, but their big girl came up really high,” Osage junior Carson Wood pointed out. “Once we got into the high elbow, we could look opposite (for a pass) and I feel like that really helped us.”
Gamm, for one, was not worried about what her teammates could do in her absence.
“It takes a lot of trust in my teammates,” she said. “I knew once I picked up my second (foul) and had to sit for a little bit, I knew I could trust my teammates to keep us in it and hang in there until I get back and we all get going again.”
On the defensive end Osage packed in its defense, taking away Rolla’s inside presence and forcing the Bulldogs to knock down long-range shots. The Indians took a 37-32 lead into the final frame and led by as many as eight before a 6-0 Rolla run cut the lead to two with 2:15 left to go. However, it was the closest the Bulldogs would get as the Indians stepped up and knocked down shots at the free throw line to stretch and preserve the lead until the final buzzer.
Clinging to a 5-point lead with 12 seconds left, Colonius hit her first free throw to put her team up six. The ensuing free throw was missed, but Gamm came away with the rebound, was fouled and hit her two free throws to put the game away for good.
“How big was that offensive rebound she got?” Rowland said of the play. “I think we shot about 75 or 80 percent from the line in our last two games when we are about a 65 percent free throw shooting team on the year. So, we picked the right time to knock them down.”
Wood finished with 12 points to lead Osage while senior Kenzie King added 10, Gamm knocked down eight and both senior Rose Colonius and freshman Sara Wolf finished with seven each respectively.
What Rowland may have enjoyed the most about this win was the fact that it was the result of a team effort with players adding their own contributions each step of the way. All the little things added up for the program to claim yet another district title.
“One thing is that Payton (Good) played really good defense. If she did not hit those huge shots against Salem, maybe we don’t even play this game,” the coach stated. “She did not really score tonight, but played really good defense. Kenzie got her shot blocked a few times, but was still aggressive and played really good defense. Liberty (Gamm) came off the bench and did a good job and Sara did the same thing… I thought both of them came in and served a purpose and it was not a detriment to have two freshmen out there.”
And now, Osage (21-6) is back in the state playoffs once again hoping to make another run after reaching the state quarterfinals a season ago. The Indians will face a Nevada team (18-8) in Sweet 16 action at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia Tuesday night and Rowland said he likes the way the schedule lines up.
“It is going to be like a normal week for us. I think maybe that will help and we won’t have that long break in between,” the coach noted. “Even this week was kind of weird. We played Monday and Friday and we don’t ever do that. We just have to keep doing the kind of stuff we’ve been doing, but I like the fact that we have a game right away and there is not a huge break or anything like that.”
And another positive is that the hostility of the next environment may not be quite as severe.
“Honestly, our next game is at Smith-Cotton and the crowd probably won’t be a factor like that because it is a long drive for whoever it is and a huge gym where this gym is smaller,” Rowland said in comparison to Rolla.
Whatever obstacles Osage may face next in pursuit of a state title, Gamm said her team will certainly not be lacking any drive as they look to take the next step.
“I think it really gives us the motivation to keep going and possibly get further than last year,” the junior said of having another district title in hand. “We can build on it like we did this year.”
Tipoff for Tuesday night’s sectional game is scheduled for 6 p.m.