By Ron Holt
CLEVELAND – When Bixby High’s Lady Spartans and Union clashed for the third time here last Thursday night in a Class 6A Area Tournament winners’ bracket game, the intensity was elevated as were tempers and, as expected, it was a competitive battle to the final horn.
In overtime, the Lady Spartans salvaged their second win against the Redhawks this season – thanks to a field goal by Alyssa Nielsen, two free throws by Gracy Wernli, rebounds by Meredith Mayes and a deflection on Union’s final shot by Nielsen – in capturing a 49-47 victory at Cleveland High’s Events Center.
“All the marbles were on the table in this one. I knew it was going to be a battle to the end and that’s the way it ended up,” Bixby’s head coach Tina Thomas said. “Tempers flared a little but both teams have competitors who are good kids.
“Union has four seniors, and they are well prepared. Joe (Redmond) does a great job. Our kids kept battling and kept believing.”
With the win, Bixby (22-3) advances to the Class 6A State Tournament for the second straight year and third time in the past five years.
The Lady Spartans, riding a 14-game winning streak, meet Edmond Memorial (18-8) at 2 p.m. Thursday (March 10) at Carl Albert High’s gymnasium in Midwest City.
Edmond Memorial, coached by Rachel Crabaugh, fell to Mustang, 65-41, in a regional championship game before capturing wins over Moore (61-52) and defending Class 6A state champion Norman (61-55) to advance to the state tournament.
“They had some injuries early on, but they will be a strong contender,” coach Thomas said of the Lady Bulldogs. “Anyone who makes it to state is a worthy opponent. They are more one dimensional than we are.”
In other state quarterfinal games, Edmond North (25-1) plays Stillwater (14-13) at 3:30 p.m., Mustang (22-4) meets Union at 7 p.m. and Sand Springs (22-3) tests Choctaw (22-2) at 8:30 p.m.
The Bixby-Memorial winner plays the Mustang-Union winner at 9 a.m. Friday in the University of Oklahoma’s Lloyd Noble Center in Norman while the Edmond North-Stillwater winner plays the Sand Springs-Choctaw winner in a noon semifinal game.
“It never gets old,” coach Thomas said of playing in the state tournament. “We have some kids who have made this journey … but we have some new kids that haven’t been here. It does wonders for the program.”
Bixby and Union were involved in a back-and-forth affair with one team pulling away before the other rallied to close the gap. Leading 14-11 midway through the first quarter, Union scored five points to lead 19-11 before Mayes scored off the glass to trim UHS’s lead to 19-13 after one quarter.
Four consecutive free throws by Mayes down the stretch allowed Bixby to narrow Union’s lead to 28-27 at halftime. A field goal by Nielsen got Bixby within 30-29 before Union scored nine straight points – three by Aubrey Hishaw and two each by Makenzie Malham and Sydni Smith – to lead 39-29 with 3:08 showing in the third quarter.
Two free throws by Wernli made it a 39-33 game going into the fourth quarter. Bixby regained the momentum early in the final frame as two free throws and a bank shot by Mayes and a 3-pointer by Wernli gave the Lady Spartans a 40-39 lead with 6:38 left.
Wernli offset a jumper by Union’s Malham with another 3-pointer giving Bixby a 43-41 lead. Talented Union senior TK Pitts scored four straight points giving the Redhawks a 45-43 lead before Mayes scored from in close with 37 seconds left to tie the game at 45-all forcing overtime.
In overtime, Nielsen sank a jumper near the lane at the 2:41 mark for a 47-45 Bixby lead and Wernli swished two free throws with 1:35 left raising the lead to 49-45. Smith scored on a bank shot for Union’s only overtime points, narrowing the deficit to 49-47 with 1:18 remaining.
With seven seconds left, Wernli’s first attempt at a one-and-one free throw opportunity rolled off the rim and Union hurried downcourt before Nielsen deflected Pitts’ shot as time expired.
“That was amazing … I have no words to describe it. We lost to them last year in that same game and we wanted this one so bad,” said Wernli, who led Bixby in scoring with 20 points. “This was by far the most intense game we’ve had with them.
“We treat every practice like it’s our last one. It’s go-time now and everyone is ready … everyone is handling their role.”
Mayes had an outstanding game inside, both scoring and rebounding. She was a problem for the Redhawks when Smith was sidelined with foul problems. Mayes ended with 18 points, hitting eight-of-eight charity attempts.
“It was so fun. I’ve been waiting to have a fun game like that … I loved it. The bench energy and the crowd were awesome,” Mayes said. “When we were down by six, I knew everybody would bring the energy and that’s what I tried to do.
“It’s amazing because all of our hard work and practices are paying off. It’s such a good feeling.”
Nielsen finished with seven points while Gentry Baldwin and Brynn Daniel each scored two points for BHS. Pitts’ 19 points and 11 by Hishaw paced Union (18-6).
“We just kept getting the ball inside to Meredith since they were in foul trouble and Mere was very aggressive with the basketball,” coach Thomas said. “There were some things at the end I didn’t like which they just heard about, but we did another good job shooting free throws. Tuesday (against Stillwater) we were 14-of-15 shooting free throws and tonight we were 14-of-16.”
Bixby lost to Putnam City West (49-41) in the first round of the Class 6A State Tournament in 2018. Last season, the Lady Spartans defeated Choctaw (61-39) and Edmond North (59-54) to reach the state finals where they lost to unbeaten Norman (48-37).
“It feels amazing,” Wernli said about a return to the state tourney. “We have three more games left to play is the way we look at it.”
NOTEBOOK – Bixby’s returning junior starters 5-6 guard Gentry Baldwin, 5-9 guard Gracy Wernli, 6-3 center Meredith Mayes and 6-0 forward Alyssa Nielsen have state tourney experience while 5-8 sophomore forward Brynn Daniel is making her first start this season. …Against state tourney teams, Bixby won two of three against Union, lost to Edmond North while defeating Sand Springs and Stillwater. Edmond Memorial lost twice to Edmond North, lost twice to Mustang and defeated Stillwater. … After falling to Classen SAS in the second game of the Putnam City Invitational, the Lady Spartans won 14 in a row. … Bixby’s girls won the Class A State Championship in 1957 for the program’s only state title.
Class 6A Girls State Tournament
(Carl Albert, Midwest City)
2 p.m.- Bixby vs. Edmond Memorial; 3:30 p.m. – Edmond North vs. Stillwater; 7 p.m. – Mustang vs. Union; 8:30 p.m. – Sand Springs vs. Choctaw.
(OU’s Lloyd Noble Center)
9 a.m. – Bixby-Memorial winner vs. Mustang-Union winner; Noon – Sand Springs-Choctaw winner vs. Edmond North-Stillwater winner.
(OU’s Lloyd Noble Center)
Noon – Championship Game
BIXBY 49, UNION 47 (OT)
(Area Tournament, Cleveland)
Bixby Scoring – Gracy Wernli 20, Meredith Mayes 18, Alyssa Nielsen 7, Gentry Baldwin 2, Brynn Daniel 2.
Union Scoring – TK Pitts 19, Aubrey Hishaw 11, Makenzie Malham 8, Sydni Smith 6, Desiree Marshall Penny 3.