Photo by Steve Doak Photography
By RON HOLT
NORMAN – For the third straight season, the eventual state champion ousted Bixby’s Lady Spartans from the Class 6A Girls’ State Basketball Tournament.
Two years ago, Bixby fell to Norman in the title game at Oral Roberts University’ Mabee Center. Last season, the Lady Spartans were edged by Edmond North on an overtime buzzer-beater in the championship game at the University of Oklahoma’s Lloyd Noble Center.
Unfortunately, the Lady Spartans faced Edmond North in the Class 6A state quarterfinals last Thursday afternoon in OU’s Lloyd Noble Center.
Led by a 29-point performance by Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year Laci Steele, unbeaten Edmond North turned back numerous Bixby comeback attempts in defeating the Lady Spartans 70-58, sadly ending the careers of four Lady Spartan seniors who were in the starting lineup for four seasons.
North followed that performance with a 45-42 semifinal win over Putnam City and a 65-58 victory over Norman in the state title game last Saturday afternoon for its second straight 6A championship.
Steele was the difference maker early as her sharpshooting staked the Lady Huskies to an early advantage. They held on despite gutty rallies by the Lady Spartans. Steele, a North Carolina State signee, was 11-of-15 shooting from the field while sinking four-of-five three-point attempts. She also contributed six rebounds and three assists.
“We knew that if Laci got the ball there wasn’t much we could do to stop her and she proved us right,” Bixby head coach Tina Thomas said afterward. “She’s an exceptional young lady and player. We just couldn’t get stops defensively but I thought we played hard.
“The achilles heel that we’ve been struggling with all year is rebounding … they crushed us in rebounds. Even when we’d get a stop, they’d get the rebound. We couldn’t generate enough offense to offset that deficit.”
Edmond North (29-0) went on a 14-5 run midway through the first quarter to grab a 21-14 lead going into the second stanza. Despite nine second quarter points by Bixby senior Gracy Wernli, the Lady Huskies maintained a 39-32 lead at intermission.
Bixby (19-9) constantly battled back in the third quarter getting within four points once before Edmond North went on a late 7-0 run to take a 57-45 lead into the fourth quarter. Late Lady Spartan fouls allowed the Lady Huskies to increase the margin of victory.
Edmond North also received double figure scoring from Allison Heathcock, who finished with 19 points while also leading the Lady Huskies in rebounding with nine.
Lady Spartan senior G. Wernli, Bixby’s leading scorer, ended her career in impressive fashion, scoring 24 points highlighted by six-of-13 three-point shooting. Senior post Alyssa Nielsen ended with 14 points and four rebounds. Freshman Kate Wernli contributed 13 points.
Senior guard Gentry Baldwin was held to three points but she led the Lady Spartans in rebounding with five, in assists with eight and in steals with three.
The Lady Spartans played most of the season without 6-3 senior center Meredith Mayes, a four-year starter, who suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the season.
“It was uphill all season … I think just being here we did overcome it. Once you get here anything can happen,” coach Thomas added. “We just got beat by a really good team. No one has figured out a way to beat them this year.
“This doesn’t take away from the resolve, the grit, the determination, the fight and bounce back that my girls have demonstrated all season. They fought their guts out … they just came up short. Our seniors had a great career getting to state three straight times. They set the standard.
“I’m really proud of those girls and the young ladies they’ve become during the journey,” she added.
Through tears, the emotional three Bixby seniors graciously talked about playing their final game as a Lady Spartan.
“I think we went in knowing we had a tough draw in the first round but if we wanted it we were going to have to beat them regardless,” G. Wernli said. “We overcame a ton this year. I’m extremely proud of the way we stuck together … we gave 110 percent all the time, every day in practice.”
Nielsen said, “We knew it would be a tough game and I think we gave it everything we had. They’re a fantastic team and I wish them good luck. Once Steele got started there’s no stopping her.
“I’ve played with these girls since fourth grade, they’ve been great. I wouldn’t want to go through all this with anybody else. I’m just going to miss them.”
Baldwin added, “It’s so emotional right now because I’ve played with these girls since third grade. I think about all the hours we put into this together. I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”
STATE NOTEBOOK – This was Bixby’s third straight trip to the Class 6A state tournament. … Edmond North out-rebounded Bixby 30-24 while shooting 18 more free throws. North hit 16-of-29 free throws while Bixby hit nine-of-11 free throws. … Edmond North hit 55 percent from the field while Bixby hit 42.9 percent. … In other 6A state quarterfinal results, Norman downed Norman North (62-47), Edmond Memorial toppled Booker T. Washington (57-48) and Putnam City West edged Broken Arrow (45-36). In the other semifinal game, Norman, which also won recent state titles in 2019 and 2021, rolled past Edmond Memorial (68-47). … North’s Elle Papahronis, a 5-11 senior, was 5-of-13 shooting free throws against Bixby. Against Norman in the state finals, Papahronis was 13-of-17 from the line en route to a 30-point performance. … North’s Steele was named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player while Bixby’s Gracy Wernli was a second team all-tournament selection.
EDMOND NORTH 70, BIXBY 58
(Class 6A State Quarterfinals)
Bixby 14 18 13 13 – 58
EN 21 18 18 13 – 70
Bixby – Gracy Wernli 24, Alyssa Nielsen 14, Kate Wernli 13, Gentry Baldwin 3, Brynn Daniel 2, Ama Musick 2.
Edmond North – Steele 29, Heathcock 19, Papahronis 9, Peeler 8, G. Jackson 2, M. Jackson 2, Melton 1.