It is often said that defense wins championships.

Well, Camdenton certainly took that idea to heart in Friday night’s Class 5 District 10 championship at Willard as the top-seeded Lakers took down the No. 2 hometown Tigers 78-62 for their first district title since 2015.

After trailing by two at halftime and as many as eight points midway through the third quarter, Camdenton turned up the pressure and it paid off in a big way. The Lakers went on a 21-7 run to end the third that turned into a 6-point lead heading into the final frame. Once the lead was secured, Camdenton’s defense remained relentless never letting Willard get closer than those six points the rest of the way.

“We are a very defensive-minded team and we knew that if we worked hard, we could accomplish a lot,” Camdenton senior Kylie Meier said after her team forced 13 turnovers in the third quarter alone and 29 overall. “We just buckled down, played as hard as we could and got the job done. That is what working together will do for you.”

Meier was there the last Camdenton won a district title and she wanted to have that feeling once again.

“Freshman year we got a lot of experience and seeing how that feeling feels and watching them do it just makes you want to get that for yourself,” she noted. “We were a part of that but you also want to contribute more and we are just glad to be here, get that feeling they felt and know what it is like.”

Of course, no turnaround is complete without points being scored on the other end of the floor. However, it certainly became a lot easier in the second half thanks to that defense. Willard could not quite recover from Camdenton’s full court pressure, putting up quick shots, and as a result the Lakers put up 25 points in the third and finished the game even stronger with another 27 in the fourth.

“I think a lot of times we score out of our defense and that is where that came from. We buckled down on defense and that got us the points in the end,” Camdenton sophomore Shelby Kurtz pointed out after scoring seven of her 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Defense was key, but it was not the only key. While Camdenton played with plenty of energy on the court, it fed off the energy it also received off the court from all the fans making their support loud and clear.

“Willard plays a lot like us so we knew it was going to be a fun game. I love the energy we had in the gym and we had a huge crowd tonight,” Camdenton coach Staci Caffey remarked. “Willard’s crowd is huge, but I felt like this was probably the biggest fan base we ever played in front of. I thought our girls handled that energy, used it as a positive and just ran with it.”

One Laker who certainly utilized that energy was Camdenton senior Coley Rezabek. After scoring just two points in the first half, the senior made her presence on the court known fueling the Laker offense with 13 points in the third quarter and finishing the night with 22 to lead the team. The senior said it was simply time to focus on the things they do well.

“We can’t really focus on other teams so much because they can get in our head and we focus on them and not us,” Rezabek said. “In the first half we played their game and coach said that in the locker room at halftime. We knew we had to make that adjustment and in the second half we did. We played our game, they could not handle our pressure and intensity and that is what wins us ballgames. Teams cannot play our style of game.”

There might have also been a little extra motivation for the senior as there was no way she could end her Laker career as the only Rezabek without a district title. Rezabek had just joined her older sister Bailey, a 2016 graduate, as a member of the 1,000-point club at Camdenton and a district championship was undoubtedly another part of her bucket list.

“It kind of goes back to the 1,000-point thing. She always rubbed it in,” the senior said with a smile.” But she was not really taunting me with it. She was trying to strive me to get better to get that district championship. She wanted me to have the feeling she had her junior year and now to have that feeling, we can share memories and it is just awesome.”

Willard had switched back and forth between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense trying to clog the lane. Once Camdenton was able to spread out the Tigers, due in part to a pair of 3-pointers from junior Darby Roam, Rezabek was able to go to work inside the paint and her teammates had no trouble feeding her some assists.

Meanwhile, Meier finished with 19 points for Camdenton, both senior Abbie Miller and junior Natalie Basham added eight and Roam knocked down six respectively. Sophomore Korrin Lembke also put in a pair of free throws down the stretch to help secure the win.

“The girls just kind of looked at her (Rezabek) and said, ‘C’mon Coley we need you.’ That is why she is a captain and a leader,” Caffey stated. “Her, Abbie and Kylie looked at each other, looked at me and said, ‘Coach, we got this.’ When you know, you know and those girls have not disappointed me yet so I was not expecting them to do it tonight either. When you have three leaders like we had tonight, they stepped up in that third quarter.

“I feel like our girls made a strong bond there at the end and they were determined to win.”

Camdenton certainly played like it as the clock started to wind down. Holding on to a slim 6-point lead, the Lakers stayed calm as they took care of the ball with just a single turnover in the final quarter and took good shots. They also did well at the free throw line, nailing 25 of their 34 shots from the charity stripe (74 percent).

It all came together for a winning formula and with Caffey’s birthday being on Saturday, her team more than happy to gift her yet another district title the night beforehand. After posing for a few team photos with the district title plaque, the players did not hesitate to give their coach a few hugs while they sang “Happy Birthday.”

“The district birthday presents are probably about the best thing you can get. That was pretty awesome and the way the girls came out and played, they were just focused and ready to go. It was fun,” Caffey said.

And the Lakers (19-7) will look to give the coach a few more gifts in the form of wins as they head into the Sweet 16 and continue their pursuit of a state title. Up next is a Blue Springs team (12-13) in sectional action at State Fair Community College in Sedalia and Kurtz has a pretty good idea of how to move on to the quarterfinals.

“I think we just have to keep playing our game. I think we have what it takes to make it there,” the sophomore said. “We just have to keep playing together, keep playing as a team, work on our defense and score out of it.”

It has been a good run for the Lakers after capturing the Bolivar Tournament title to end the regular season and adding another district title. Whatever lies ahead for this team, Caffey just wants her players to continue to enjoy the ride.

“I think we are just going to embrace every moment we have. I think that is what is so great about this team is just the camaraderie they have and the closeness they share,” she remarked. “I think we are just going to live every second up like we can. I am just anxious to get our girls ready and get focused for that game.”

Tipoff is scheduled for Wednesday night in Sedalia at 6 p.m.