Only 22 games removed from making her debut with the O’Fallon girls basketball program, freshman Amelia Bell had no illusions of being moved up to the Panthers varsity roster when the season began.
On Saturday, the 6-foot Bell helped O’Fallon win its first Highland Scott Credit Union Girls Basketball Tournament title.
In just her third game back after suffering a hyperextended elbow, Bell scored a team-high 12 points, and Makayla Best added 11 points — all in the second half — as O’Fallon (20-2) held off Central 50-43 in the championship game of the 32nd annual event at Highland High School.
“I started out the season on the freshman team. Then after four or five games, I got moved up to the junior-varsity team. I played a few games there, then got called up to the varsity. It’s happened kind of fast,” Bell said. “I just try to do the best I can. I know my role.”
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Bell combined with junior Ashley Schloer for 11 points in the first quarter as O’Fallon took a 21-11 lead. But Central (19-3), looking for its fourth Highland Tournament title since 2013, didn’t quit.
Led by senior Faye Meissner and Olivia Wesselmann, the Cougars battled back in the second and third quarters and cut the lead to a single point early in the final period.
But the play of Bell and Best, a physical 5-9 sophomore, down the stretch proved to be the difference. The duo combined for 12 of the Panthers’ 15 fourth-quarter points.
“But for us it all starts on the defensive end of the court, and today we were able to make some key stops,” an elated O’Fallon coach Nick Knolhoff said. “We are a balanced team, and on any day we have a number of players who can have stepped up to lead us.
“I’m very happy for the girls. This is the third tournament where we’ve gone 4-0, and to be 12-0 in the events we’ve played in is really something to be proud.”
O’Fallon won the Mascoutah Invitational last month and was 4-0 in its own round-robin event to start the season in November.
But Central gave O’Fallon its toughest tournament test of the season. Wesselmann connected on 2 of 4 3-pointers made by the Cougars in the final quarter as Central closed to within two points. But each time Central appeared ready to take the lead, Bell or Best would make a play to thwart the Central hopes.
“I was pleased with our effort. We knew coming in that we had to do a good job on the boards, and in the first quarter, we gave up a few offensive rebounds, and they converted,” Central coach Nathan Rueter said. “But other than the first four minutes, I thought we played them pretty well even. We just came up short.”
O’Fallon senior Sydney Thurwalker was chosen as the tournament MVP. The 5-11 Thurwalker averaged 16 points in the Panthers’ first three tournament games. Plagued by fouls on Saturday, Thurwalker scored only five points, with four coming in the first quarter as O’Fallon took the lead for good.
A transfer from Belleville West, Thurwalker said she wasn’t worried when Central made its second-half push.
“We have been in these kinds of situations before, and each time we’ve had somebody step up and make a play,” Thurwalker said. “We did that again today.”
Joining Thurwalker as first-team all-tournament selections were Rece Portell, of Highland; Faye Meissner, of Central; Jayla Stubblefield, of O’Fallon; and Kaylee Eaton, of Civic Memorial.
Second team selections were Carson Newkirk, of Central; Ellie Brown, of Highland; Alaira Tyus, of Civic Memorial; Audrey Jansen, of Okawville; and Jolene Bueker, of Teutopolis.
Civic Memorial 51, Highland 45
Alaira Tyus scored 12 points, and Kourtland Tyus added 11 as the Eagles defeated Mississippi Valley Conference rival Highland in the third-place game.
The Eagles improved to 21-2 for the season, while Highland slips to 14-8.
Salem 38, Belleville West 28
Senior Trinity Meadows scored 15 points as the Wildcats (13-11) held off Belleville West in the fifth-place game.
Juniors Myana Lampley and Shaniah Nunn led Belleville West (6-14) with eight points each.
Okawville 52, Teutopolis 45
Senior Audrey Jansen scored 17 points, and Madelyn Tepe chipped in with 12 as the Rockets (15-6) upset Class 2A state power Teutopolis in the fifth-place game.
Jolene Bueker led the Wooden Shoes (21-4) with 10 points. Teutopolis has host four of its past six games after a 19-0 start to the season.