RILEY — The somber mood that filled the gym afterward belied the fact that the Riley County girls’ basketball team clinched its fourth straight Mid East League title Friday night with a 41-31 win over Rossville.
The No. 2 (Class 3A) Falcons (18-1, 9-0), who lost senior Makayla Vargo to a season-ending injury earlier in the season, suffered another blow when senior point guard Katelyn Thomson went down with an apparent knee injury just six seconds into the game.
“It’s just hard to regroup from that,” Falcons’ head coach Harold Oliver said. “It’s a devastating blow to our team, and to Katelyn. They’ve been through a lot, and they’re tough. It’s just difficult to respond that quick.”
The Falcons, shell-shocked by another potentially devastating injury, struggled early. Taylor Oliver picked up her second foul on a shot attempt by Rossville’s Heidi Nitsch, who made two free throws to tie the game 6-6 with 2:12 to play in the first quarter.
Oliver stayed in the game, though, and her 3-pointer 12 seconds later gave the Falcons a 9-6 lead heading into the second period.
Rossville (8-10, 2-6) opened the second quarter with back-to-back 3s by Hailey Dick and Amanda Hill to make it 12-12 with 6:08 left before halftime.
With the Falcons rattled, and the upperclassmen — Madison Vargo in particular — noticeably shaken by the loss of Thomson, freshman Bethany Crubel and sophomore Alyssa Kulp helped Riley County find its footing.
Crubel hit a transition layup. Kulp grabbed a steal that resulted in an Oliver 3-pointer to break a 12-12 tie at 3:45 in the second quarter. The two underclassman would score six straight points to end the half while manning the bottom of Riley County’s 2-3 zone. The Falcons led 21-14 at halftime.
Vargo found Kulp inside late in the third quarter to start an 11-0 run that turned a then-five point cushion into a 34-18 Falcon lead midway through the fourth that allowed the Falcons to escape with the win and without further injury.
Riley County will travel to St. Marys on Thursday to wrap up its regular season schedule before hosting its first sub-state game the following week. Subsequent sub-stategames will be at Silver Lake.
“They will,” Oliver said of his team’s chances of regrouping from the loss of one of its leaders. “They’ll have to take some time over the next few days and get their heads straight. We’re confident they’re going to play hard and get after it. They won’t go down without a fight.”
Thomson’s availability remains uncertain.
“Katelyn is going to get an MRI tomorrow, and we’ll find out after that — whether she’s going to be able to play or do anything,” Oliver said.