MUSCATINE - You could feel it even before tip-off inside the spacious Muscatine High School gymnasium Wednesday, Feb. 24.
The class 1A regional championship game pitting eighth-ranked Springville against 10th-ranked Burlington Notre Dame had more of a state tournament feel to it, and there was a very good reason why.
“Burlington Notre Dame is a team used to playing at the state tournament, just like we are and this game kind of had that special vibe, like it was a state tournament worthy game,” said Oriole girls basketball coach Christina Zaruba, as it was her team who continued on to Wells Fargo Arena and the state tournament in Des Moines for the sixth time in the last seven years after claiming a hard-fought 65-57 victory over a very talented Nikes team.
“We knew we were going to have to play our very best to be able to win and get back to the ‘Well’, and the girls did exactly that. Everyone played amazing basketball and we were able to beat a good Burlington Notre Dame team, because I know they had to have come into this game wanting revenge after what we did to them the last time we played them.”
Springville faced the Nikes in the class 1A state quarter-final round back in 2017, and destroyed the Burlington Notre Dame team cruising to a 56-16 rout that sparked the Orioles to their second of three straight state championships.
Wednesday night in Muscatine however, wouldn’t quite so easy for the Springville girls, though the Orioles were able to maintain the lead from just about start-to-finish.
“I was so proud the way we would respond after every single Notre Dame run,” Zaruba said. “We trailed early in the game, and then once we got the lead, we were able to keep it just about the entire way.”
The only stretch that saw the Nikes able to get over that hump came in the third quarter as Burlington Notre Dame erased a 27-21 Springville halftime lead by going on a 14-6 run, capped by a Katy Stephens basket at the 2:16 mark. The hoop gave the Nikes a 35-33 advantage, their first lead since 3-2 at the 6:11 mark of the opening quarter.
Then Grace Matus took center stage for the Orioles.
“Lauren (Wilson) had been absolutely dominating the game inside and when she was getting a lot more attention from the Notre Dame defense, that’s when Grace stepped up and hit a couple of huge 3-point shots for us,” said Zaruba, as Matus connected twice from beyond the arc in about a one-minute span to give the Orioles a lead they would not lose the rest of the night.
“When Notre Dame took that lead, I know a lot of people expected me to take a timeout there, but I didn’t want to give them any more momentum than they already had. I wanted our girls to work through it, and that’s exactly what they did. Grace hit those two 3’s and we were right back in rhythm. I knew there would be no stopping us from that point on.”
Savannah Nealman added a field goal with 18-seconds left completing a huge 8-0 Springville run before the Nikes added a field goal of their own to trail 41-38 at the third quarter horn.
“When Burlington Notre Dame was making that run, Lauren passed the basketball out to me a couple of times before and I didn’t shoot,” Matus said. “Then she gave me that look like I better shoot it if I’m open, so I did and was able to hit a couple in a row. It was all that attention that Lauren was getting that allowed me to be open, and she got me the ball at the right times.”
The final eight-minutes would see plenty of drama, with the Orioles once again answering every challenge.
After the Nikes scored the first basket of the final frame to close to within a point at 41-40, Springville’s Morgan Nachazel and Molly Stamp answered with clutch baskets stretching the Oriole lead to 46-40, a lead they were able to maintain through most of the fourth quarter.
Burlington Notre Dame did have one last run in them however.
“And we knew they would,” said Wilson, who scored seven of her game-high 26 points in the final eight-minute stretch.
“Burlington Notre Dame is too good to go away that easily, we knew we’d have to weather the storm and get through it, and we all made plays down the stretch to win it.”
Wilson, Nachazel, Stamp and Nealman were huge in making sure that fourth quarter Nike storm was weathered, as all hit baskets before Stamp iced the game from the free throw line.
“Molly was huge going 6-for-6 from the free throw line down the stretch,” said Zaruba, as Burlington Notre Dame had closed to within four points each time Stamp went to the charity stripe before her two free throws with 8.4-seconds left cemented Springville’s trip to state and ended the scoring in the contest.
“We were struggling a bit from the line late in the game before Molly settled everyone down.”
The Orioles led 58-52 with 1:58 remaining when the Nikes decided to start fouling. Springville proceeded to miss three front-ends of 1-and-1 free throw attempts before Nealman added an enormous field goal with 1:18 remaining to give the Orioles a 60-54 advantage.
Wilson split a pair of free throws with 56-seconds left to once again stretch the lead to two possessions at 61-57.
It would be as close as Burlington Notre Dame would get.
“I thought we all did a great job of playing as a team down the stretch,” said Nachazel, who had 11 points and eight rebounds in the win.
“What I thought put us over the top though was our defense. We knew their tendencies and really made life tough on their offense all game long.”
The game started with Reagan Engberg drilling a long trey giving the Nikes a 3-0 lead 15-seconds into the contest.
It would be their biggest advantage of the night.
Wilson scored the first of her 15 first half points to get the Springville scoring started and when Nealman added a basket at the 4:32 mark of the opening quarter, the Orioles had a lead (4-3) they would not lose until the brief third quarter Burlington Notre Dame run (and that Nikes lead last all of 16-seconds).
A wild first quarter ended with Springville leading 17-15.
“We knew Burlington Notre Dame was going to play physical, so we had some of our taller teachers come to practice to kind of push me around,” Wilson said. “That really helped me get ready for what I faced Wednesday night.”
Stamp was phenomenal for the Orioles as well scoring 12 points while adding 10 assists and five rebounds.
The Orioles (21-4), the eight-seed in the class 1A state tournament bracket, open with No. 1 Algona Bishop Garrigan (23-1) Wednesday, March 3, with a 2 p.m. tip inside Wells Fargo Arena.
“Last year we came up just short of getting to state losing in the regional championship game, and that hurt,” Nachazel said. “We all came into this season with the attitude of doing whatever it takes to get back to Wells Fargo. This is an exciting moment for our team and our community. It never gets old.”
“This is such an incredible feeling,” she said. “We’ve been there before when we were freshmen, but you never know if it’s all going to come together to be able to get back, and to do that is amazing. Now it’s time to go there and pull off an upset.”