The Columbia Eagles came close to pulling an upset, but the Waterloo Bulldogs were able to complete the job in Wednesday’s semifinals of the Columbia Class 3A girls basketball regional.
The host Eagles led at halftime and did not fall behind for good until late in the third quarter before falling to second-seeded Benton 44-38 in the opening semifinal.
But in the second contest, fueled by a 17-7 second-quarter blitz, Waterloo rolled on to a 56-43 victory over third-seeded Herrin.
With the victory, Waterloo (12-13) advances into Friday’s 7 p.m. title game against the Rangerettes (27-3). The Bulldogs last won a regional championship during the 2013-14 season.
“Our girls came into this game really confident they could win, and they (Herrin) are a really good team,” said Waterloo coach Nate Lucash. “We got off to a bit of a slow start, but got it going in the second quarter.
“That seemed to help our confidence and we seemed to play better as the game went on. It also helped we did a good job on our free throws late.”
Waterloo 56, Herrin 43
Down 7-2 early, Waterloo had pulled to within 12-8 by the end of the opening quarter.
A 3-pointer from Heather Elliott then sparked a 12-0 surge about 4 and a half minutes into the second quarter, which put the Bulldogs in front for good.
Sydney Luedermam also had a 3 and a pair of free throws in the run, while senior Brianna Wesselmann had a pair of run-out layups in transition.
The Tigers’ Grace Lenhoff scored down low to end the run, but Wesselmann tallied again on an offensive rebound with just 12 seconds left in the half, sending Waterloo into the break up 25-19.
“Taylor hit a big shot to get us going,” said Lucash. “And Brianna’s, she’s one of our seniors, was aggressive getting out there in transition ahead of their defense. Our kids did a good job hitting the boards there, limiting them to one shot. It was nice to see.”
The second of three third-period 3-pointers from Herrin’s McKayla Smothers did draw the Tigers within 32-28 with 2:28 left in the quarter.
But Waterloo answered with seven straight points — including 3s from Jessica Whiteside and a basket from Luederman, along with single free throws from Whiteside and Alyssa Busche — before Smothers drained another 3 in the quarter’s waning seconds, making it 39-30.
Herrin would not get closer than six points down the stretch, as Waterloo put the game away with an 11 of 13 performance at the free-throw line in the final eight minutes.
Busche did the bulk of the damage, sinking all eight of her free-throw attempts.
Liederman topped the Bulldogs with 3 points, while Busche and Augustine both finished with 11. Wesselman had 10.
“I’m really proud of the girls,” Lucash said. “They kept their composure and hit their free throws. They came into this thinking we would win the regional. We know Benton is a really good team, but we’re glad that we’re going to get a shot at them.”
Herrin’s Smothers topped all scorers with 14 points. Madison Lequatte finished with seven.
“We played one quarter, really,” said Herrin coach Bill Green, whose team bows out at 20-9. “Waterloo just wanted it more than we did. Loose balls, rebounds, we just kind of stood around and watched them go after them. We really are a good team. I just wish we would have given them a better game.”
Benton 44, Columbia 38
The defense of the second-seeded Rangerettes proved to be the difference as they thwarted the upset bid of the host Eagles.
Kalli Farmer and Courtney Weillbacher scored five points apiece, as Columbia jumped out to an 18-10 lead after a quarter.
But that would be the only period where the Eagles managed to score in double figures, as Benton was able to chip away. Eventually taking the lead in the third period and going onto the victory.
“We hit some shots early, which put us up,” said Columbia coach Scott Germain, whose team managed just 20 points over the final three quarters. “But they would not fall after the second quarter started and that’s what happens, you’ve got to put the ball into the hole.
“They got plenty of second and third chance shots, and scored off a lot of them. Give them credit, they rebounded well.”
The bulk of that damage in the paint came from 5-foot-11 junior center Makala Abney.
Taking advantage of her bulk, Columbia was not able to contain Abney, who finished with 18 points and 20 rebounds. Abney scored 12 of her points during the middle two quarters – during which Benton took control of the game. Nine of her rebounds also came at the offensive end and often ended up in points.
“I think (5-11) Cheyanne (Newland) is our tallest girl and she’s nowhere as big as Abney,” said “Most of her points were on putbacks and give credit to them, when they shot the ball and went hard after the rebounds.”
Farmer free throw with 30 seconds left in the second quarter, had Columbia clinging to a 21-20 lead at halftime.
A 3 from Weilbacher would later tie it at 30 late in the third period, only for Benton get buckets from Taylor Mosley and Abney in the final minute to put them up four going into the final period.
Benton maintained its lead throughout the final period, although Columbia drew within three at 37-34 and four (42-38) with 18.4 seconds following 3 from long. But Gischer drained a pair of free throws with 12.4 seconds left to seal the win.
“Give Columbia credit, they applied a lot of pressure to the ball early and it took awhile for our guards to adjust to it,” said Benton coach Andy Sloan, whose team was missing a starter . “But Abney came in and really asserted herself inside. And the girls really stepped it up on defense. We kind of hang our hat on our defense and that was true again tonight.”
Weilbacher was the only Columbia player to reach double figures with 11 points. Farmer finished with seven.
For Benton, Gischer had 11 points while Haley Ing had 10.