By Ron Holt
SAPULPA – From the opening horn, Sapulpa’s Lady Chieftains, No. 1-ranked in Class 5A East, battled to overcome an early deficit in a Frontier Valley Conference battle with Bixby here last Tuesday night.
The Lady Spartans, No. 1 ranked in Class 6A East, responded with poise, confidence and mental toughness in turning back Sapulpa’s comeback attempts for an entertaining 58-52 victory in front of a large Sapulpa gymnasium crowd.
Bixby (14-3) had scheduled road games at Muskogee and Booker T. Washington postponed because of inclement weather later in the week. The Lady Spartans remain on the road Tuesday (Feb. 8), visiting Union before returning home Friday (Feb. 11) to host Broken Arrow.
As expected, the clash between two of the state’s finest girls’ teams was competitive. Sapulpa (12-5) relied on three-point goals to take an early 12-9 lead as Jaselyn Rossman hit two treys with teammates Taylor Bilby and Tyla Heard each hitting one during the early surge.
Bixby relied on a three-pointer by Gentry Baldwin and field goals by Alyssa Nielsen, Meredith Mayes and Gracy Wernli to stay close. A jumper by Wernli, free throw by Mayes, a three-pointer by Baldwin and a layup by Nielsen lifted the visitors to a 17-15 first quarter lead.
Wernli opened the second quarter by draining a trey and sinking a free throw for a 21-19 Lady Spartan lead. BHS would never trail the remainder of the game. In the final 2:33 of the second quarter, Nielsen scored from in-close and sank a three-pointer for a 26-21 lead while Baldwin drilled a three-pointer with one second left as the Lady Spartans went to the halftime break with a 29-21 lead.
Holding a 33-27 advantage with 4:45 showing in the third quarter, Bixby’s Wernli hit a three-pointer and Nielsen scored on a rebound put-back for a 38-27 lead while the Lady Spartans used field goals by Nielsen and Brynn Daniel and a free throw by Wernli to build up a 45-30 lead going into the final stanza.
Behind three-pointers by Bilby and Rossman, Sapulpa began chipping away at the deficit and a three-point play by T. Heard, a rebound put-back by Rossman and a steal and layup by Stailee Heard narrowed Bixby’s advantage to 55-47.
Three out of four free throws by Nielsen in the final 46 seconds gave Bixby a 58-49 lead before Bilby sank another three with 22 seconds left to end the scoring.
“I thought our defense once again was pretty solid. Some of those threes they made were good shots. We left a few wide open in transition but in general I thought we did a good job,” Bixby head coach Tina Thomas said.
“The girls did what they needed to do. I felt we showed poise at the end. When they were in the zone, we were really patient and got good shots. This was what we needed … to find a way to win while showing some maturity.”
Nielsen led Bixby in scoring with 18 points, followed by Wernli with 14, Baldwin 13, Mayes nine and Daniel 4. Bilby, a sophomore, and S. Heard paced Sapulpa with 16 points each while Rossman chipped in with 11.
“I felt like being able to stay focused tonight was good especially when they got on a run,” said Mayes, who finished with 13 rebounds and seven assists. “On defense I thought we did a good job getting back on our man and on offense we were patient, which is big for us. I think we had an all-around good game.”
Down the stretch, Bixby’s poise and composure was led by Baldwin, who dribbled through pressure and spread the ball around to teammates effectively.
“She’s our commander, she sets the tone for us,” Thomas said of Baldwin. “We talked to her about that … that her posture and the way she approaches the game sets the tone. She’s doing a fabulous job.”
Baldwin understands her role this season. “Since we don’t have Kate Bradley, I’ve had to step into that point guard role,” Baldwin said. “Me and coach Thomas have worked on keeping my resolve and staying calm when things get intense.
“l know I need to go get the ball and stay composed. We know each other like the back of our hand, we know where everyone’s supposed to be. That’s why I don’t’ get as nervous since I know my teammates will be there.
“Overall, we played well on offense and played solid defense against some really good players, so I’d say this was a good game,” added Baldwin, who was credited with three assists and four steals.
NOTES – Bixby valuing the basketball played a key role in the win as the Lady Spartans ended with two turnovers. “Two turnovers might be a record,” Thomas said. “We set goals depending on who we are playing and tonight we had a goal of nine turnovers, so only turning the ball over twice was outstanding.” … Both teams were effective shooting behind the arc. Sapulpa finished with eight three-point goals, including five in the first half. Bixby had six three-pointers with Baldwin sinking three treys in the first half. … Union (12-4), ranked No. 2 in Class 6A East, won at Bixby (29-25) earlier this season while Broken Arrow (12-6, ranked No. 6 in Class 6A East, lost to Bixby (61-56) in the Bixby Tournament and lost a home game to the Lady Spartans (39-29) in early January. … Bixby’s conference game at Booker T. Washington is rescheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 16, with the girls’ varsity game set for 5:30 p.m.