RILEY — Although the Riley County Falcons began the contest against the rival Rock Creek Mustangs with a 10-point lead and ended with the same margin, the matchup was much closer in between the bookends.
Still, the Falcons were clutch when it counted and bested the Mustangs 46-36 Tuesday night.
“Both teams played good defense, and that is usually the case when we play each other,” Riley County head coach Harold Oliver said. “We feel like our kids stayed with it, fought hard and were able to get out in the fourth quarter, hit a few shots and get to the free throw line, as well.”
Junior Katelyn Thomson led the Falcons with a game-high 16 points and Madison Vargo — another junior — added 12 more for Riley County. Teammate Heidi Prockish was just short of double-digits with nine points. Vargo led the game with seven rebounds and Thomson scored half of her points after hitting a 3-pointer with a minute left in the third quarter.
Sophomore Alexis Wilson led the way for Rock Creek with 13 points and her physical play gave her opportunities at the charity stripe, where she was 7 of 12. Sarah Altenhofen and Blair Campbell — also sophomores — added nine and eight points, respectively, while senior Megan Srna completed the scoring for the Mustangs with six points.
Riley County started off the contest with a 10-0 lead aided greatly by buckets — two of which were treys — by Thomson. A Srna pull-up jumper ended the Falcons’ streak after a Rock Creek timeout with just over three minutes left in the opening quarter, and a 3-pointer by Altenhofen near the one-minute mark gave some momentum to the Mustangs moments later.
Still, Riley County went into the second quarter with a 12-5 advantage.
Slowly, however, Rock Creek chipped its way back in contention and by halftime, the game was tied 17-all after three consecutive trips to the free-throw line by Wilson.
The Falcons began the second half with authority after Vargo nailed her second 3-pointer of the night to break the tie and set the tone for perimeter shooting for a quarter that saw four more treys.
Riley County struck again with a 3-pointer — this time by junior Taylor Oliver, who was wide-open from the left of the key — with 5:40 to go in the third.
Rock Creek answered a minute later with a trey from the corner by Campbell. Thomson added another 3-pointer from the left wing with a minute left to extend the Falcons’ lead to four, but Srna swished one of her own from the top of the key to make it a one-point game at the quarter-ending buzzer.
While the 3-pointers cooled in the final quarter, both teams still traded buckets throughout much of it.
Back-to-back makes at the free-throw line by Wilson tied the game 32-32 with 3:33 left to play in regulation, but back-to-back trips by Riley County tilted the scales back in the Falcons’ favor when Vargo hit both shots and senior Bree Busch made one of two. Both were 1-and-1’s.
Still, the Mustangs were very much alive just down by three with 2:12 to play. But that changed in a matter of seconds.
Out of the Riley County timeout, Thomson drew a foul and was sent to the line to shoot two. She made her first, but missed the second shot. Prockish got the rebound, put in the basket and drew a foul. She missed the extra point, but Vargo got the rebound, drove inside, completed the basket and also drew a foul. She made the free throw and just like that, Riley County extended its lead from three points to nine points within 30 seconds of game clock.
Although Busch hit a trey with less than 40 seconds left, the damage was done.
The Falcons started with a 10-point lead and ended with one.
“Several things happened,” Rock Creek head coach Mike Zabel said. “One, we got behind 10 to nothing to start the game. I don’t know what the deal was. We got a little nervous, or something. But once we got over that we were fine and we made it a ball game.
“In the end (Riley County) made a few plays. We had our opportunities and we had open shots. We didn’t get them down, but I’m proud of the girls for not giving up. We could have got way behind and got blown-out in the beginning of the game, but we fought back and scrapped back.”
Zabel said the game provides an early learning lesson.
“We learned a few things about ourselves,” he said. “We’re a pretty young team, for the most part. Even some of our seniors haven’t played very much, until this year. It wasn’t a bad effort against a pretty good (team) in Riley County.”
Oliver said he’d like his team to keep an early lead when they can get it.
“It was a quick start for us,” he said. “We just have to learn how to sustain it. It’s a part of our growth — a part of the process in learning how to get off to a quick start and to maintain it. It’s a long game and we knew they’d come back. They are a good team and a well-coached team. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.”