Eldon girls basketball edges rival Osage in nail-biter for district championship
Eldon has eight underclassmen among the 13 players listed on the varsity roster.
That may be hard to tell, though, considering the way the Mustangs played in the championship game of the Class 4 District 10 Tournament at Osage Friday night.
Freshman Jaci Mueller nailed the go-ahead bucket and hit a pair of free throws with 23.2 seconds remaining, sophomore Haley Henderson got a crucial steal and fellow freshman Sydney Halderman made a pair of game-clinching free throws in a 60-55 win over the Indians to deliver the program’s first district championship since 1990.
Talk about composure, especially on the road against a rival to bring home a district title for the first time in 31 years.
“I think it is just the experience. We’ve had ups and downs this year, we’ve battled and fought and we’ve struggled and come back,” said Eldon coach Isaiah Rhine who also happens to be in his first season as a head coach. “We’ve had every scenario and those young girls have been in there. They’ve learned it, grown through that and we’ve grown through mistakes… We’ve got to keep getting better and we’re going to get better because it is just how these girls show up every day. They set the standard for what they want their program to be and they meet those standards every day.”
The two rivals had already met three times this year before Friday night’s game and Osage won the first two by 12 points and the most recent meeting by two. And, going back even further, these two rivals have met twice for a district championship since 2015. If history was any indication, another classic was in store and it did not disappoint with neither side leading by more than 10 points.
“It was a good game and I’m sure it was fun to watch,” said Osage coach Scott Rowland who has led a program that has been in a district championship game in six of the past seven years, winning four of them. “It would have been kind of neat if it came down to a last-second shot or something, but kind of what you expect. I know we won the first three games, but they were all close games even though the score might not have been close.
“This one was just back and forth. It seemed like as soon as we’d get up and have a lead, they’d just have an answer,” the coach continued. “Probably could have schemed it a little bit different and did a better job of getting the girls in a better spot, but it was just tough to get a nice little run and have them go on a little run. It kind of took the wind out of our sails.”
Eldon held a 24-23 lead at halftime and led by just a single point after the third quarter in a game that featured three ties and eight lead changes. With the game tied at 53 and just about a minute remaining, Mueller made her move as she drove near the baseline and banked a shot in off the glass to put her team ahead for good.
“I was like, ‘Oh, please don’t miss it,’” the freshman said with a smile on the play.
Moments later, Henderson secured the steal that ended up sending Halderman to the free throw line and the rest was history.
“It is crazy because I don’t think anybody thought we’d be in this right now so we proved them wrong,” Halderman said after her team improved to 9-15 on the season.
Whether it was the the team’s nine 3-pointers on the night or the fact that the Mustangs finished 11-14 at the free throw line and 9-10 in the fourth quarter alone, they simply made the plays that were needed.
“I think it really shows how hard we’ve worked throughout the year to get to this point. No one thought we were going to get here so, working hard in practice and just doing the things we know how to do is really paying off,” Henderson stated.
All that after Osage actually held a 6-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. That is when Rhine said he challenged his girls.
“I said, ‘Girls, this is another opportunity. We can give into this or we can grow in toughness,’ and they responded. It is amazing how many times this team has responded,” the coach said. “There are not a lot of teams where you’re 8-15, it is the end of the season and they’re busting it every day in practice, going every drill 100 percent and pulling for each other so hard. We try to emphasize being together and being tough and we know those two core things ever since I got the job. We just keep building on it.”
Henderson paced Eldon with 27 points to lead all scorers and 21 of them came in the second half, Halderman added 14 and Mueller chipped in 12 for the Mustangs with half of her points coming in the fourth quarter alone after not scoring since the first. Rhine said the 3-pointers are a big part of the team’s offensive game, and they needed to be with how tough it was to penetrate Osage’s zone at times. However, it took a little more than that.
“I thought in the second half a huge difference was Haley and Sydney. They just refused to not get to the basket and almost willed themselves there, took a hit, kept going and you could just feel things starting to turn,” Rhine said.
Rowland felt like a 3-2 zone would be a good way to slow down Eldon, considering how well it worked the last time these two teams played where it held the Mustangs to 19 points in the second half of the last meeting. He credited the visitors for knocking down shots.
“We knew going in we had to find Henderson and I just thought sometimes we did not do a good enough job of knowing where she was. Just being close to her is not enough, you have to have a hand right up in her face,” the coach pointed out. “She didn’t get them all in bunches and maybe we could have gone to a ‘Box-and one,’ but we held them in the last game because we were able to get out on 3-point shooters.
“Mueller hitting those two 3-pointers at the beginning of the game does not seem like much, but those are six pints and I’d like to have those six points. We hoped to take way a little bit more of their 3-point ability,” the coach continued. “The tough thing is Halderman drives so well and that is something they eventually started to exploit and Henderson does, too. Maybe we were just kind of back on our heels and could have switched up defenses more.”
Rhine echoed similar sentiments about the opposing side and how difficult it was to slow down Osage senior Sara Wolf who led the Indians with 26 points in her final game. The top 3-point shooter in program history made all four of her shots beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.
“She is such a good player and I would say probably one of the best to play at Osage. So hard to guard and I’ve spent hours trying to figure it out,” Rhine said of the senior. “I still don’t think I’ve quite figured it out. I have so much respect for her because there have been a lot of loaded Osage teams with solid players around her and she’s had to do a lot more than you would expect.”
Fellow senior Liberty Gamm finished with 13 points in her final game and both junior Reese Good and freshman Lauren Bartlett added six points each. Rowland said he liked the game plan and it just did not quite work out.
“We figured they were going to key in on Sara and smartly so. We hoped we could get some good stuff inside to loosen it up where they might have to help a little bit and maybe it would get her a few more looks,” the coach remarked. “It worked to a degree, but I thought our ‘High-Low’ was good. It was not quite as good, but that is going to happen in a game. You are not going to always have the opportunities we did the last three games and I thought Lauren, Alisa (Boswell) and Liberty did a nice job inside.
“Everybody want to make a few more shots, but we got a lot of looks that we want. Sometimes, they just did not go down.”
Eldon ended up forcing 20 Osage turnovers and compared to the 14 they gave up and Rhine pointed to the little plays that made a big difference.
“There were a few balls we got a fingernail on and went our way. It worked out this time and has worked out for them three other times,” he stated. “The energy and intensity on defense is what gave us those opportunities.”
Osage ends its season at 11-13 and while Rowland will always take an opportunity to play in a district championship game- something his program is quite familiar with- it is never easy to say goodbye to another senior class.
“Obviously pretty close with them and having Paige (Rowland) there, I’m kind of impartial to her,” the coach said of his daughter. “They are all just such good kids and I’ve known them forever. To think about not being around them anymore, let alone trying to figure out how to replace them on the basketball court- it has just been such a great group.
“I think of how Alisa peaked at the end here, Paige being a ‘glue’ player and doing everything the team needs and Sydney (Riley)- the fire and defense she brings and the quick ball handling,” Rowland continued. “I just hate to think about Liberty losing two half seasons over her numbers would have been on par with the best we’ve had here. Sara is going to be the top five in basically every category and she is one of the smartest, if not the smartest, player I’ve ever coached. It would be awesome if she went into coaching, she just knows the game. It has been a great ride and I can’t thank them enough.”
The coach went on to say that success is about his players and not himself. He is already looking forward to another year with the players coming back who gained valuable experience and is hoping a successful junior varsity campaign translates well to the varsity.
“I have not made a basket in 20-something years,” Rowland said jokingly. “It is what they do and they’ve done a heck of job. I could not be more proud of them.”
Rhine would give the Osage coach some credit, though.
“Scott has set an unbelievable standard here, so much respect for Scott. I got to work in the same district with him for six years and we worked the football booth every Friday night the last five years before this year,” said the coach who previously served as an assistant with the Osage boys program. “He has just built a consistent winner. You know his girls are going to have great fundamentals, play extremely hard and you know every game you play them is going to be a dogfight. If you want to win a district title, you have to beat teams like that.
“It was a high mountain to climb, but we were able to get over it tonight.”
Well, now the first-year head coach and his ball club will have a sectional game to play Wednesday night against another Tri-County Conference foe in Blair Oaks (16-10). The Falcons managed to beat the Mustangs 51-44 in their only previous meeting this season on February 11 and Eldon will be visiting their conference opponent with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m.
“A really good team we’ve already played this year. My girls fight and battle and if we play as hard as we can, I think we can be in the game and that is all we can ask for,” Rhine said. “If we are in it at the end, I think we have a shot. I’m just so thankful I get some more days with my girls. That is what we are always talking about, just fight for another day together.
“This has been so great and I’ve loved every second of this. I love this team and I’m just so thankful for the opportunity.”
Not a bad first season for a rookie head coach and his younger sister Sara Rhine, a 2015 Eldon graduate who played for the Mustangs and currently plays professional basketball in Spain, gave her vote of confidence way back before the season started last summer. The head coach will have some good news to share with his sister.
“She would be really proud. I’ve always tried to be there and support her and she has been so awesome supporting us this whole time,” the coach said. “She means the world to me and I can’t wait to talk to her.”
Michael Losch is the Sports Editor at the Lake Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-346-2132