By T. Scott Boatright
Cedar Creek senior standout Sarah Adams burst out of the gates and hit the Lady Cougars’ first basket only 24 seconds into Monday night’s girls hoop showdown against Ruston at the RHS Main Gym.
Unfortunately, it ended up being more than a quarter later before Adams and the Lady Cougars scored their next points as the Ruston High School Lady Bearcats put a 56-30 victory into the scorebook.
But the real winners were the packed house of fans who showed up to cheer on their teams — and sometimes even both teams at once.
“For me, the biggest thing was to get that playoff environment experience — there’s no bigger crowd in Ruston that’s going to be brought than Cedar Creek — was huge,” Graf said. “The fans on both sides were awesome. Everybody was super respectful but competitive at the same time and brought a lot of energy to the game. It’s just something you cannot duplicate in a practice or any other way other than experiencing it.
“I know (Cedar Creek Coach Gene Vandenlangenberg) and I wanted that third round, or home playoff game whenever that is, kind of atmosphere where you know you’ve got to handle your business. You’ve got to learn to fight through the ups and downs of the crowd and execute and stay the course. That’s what I was really thankful to get out of this game.”
Vandenlangenberg agreed with Graf’s feelings about the game.
“It was exactly what I was hoping we’d get — a playoff atmosphere,” Vandenlangenberg said. “I wanted to get our girls a little nervous and anxious and see how they handle it. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we can take a lot of things out of this game. Our ultimate goal is to make the playoffs and tonight, playing a very good team, will hopefully help make us a better team down the road.
“We stepped out of our comfort zone a little bit tonight and challenged our team by playing a really good, well-balanced Ruston team. They’re a very good defensive team. They’re long, they’re athletic, and they just play defense really well. We had a great atmosphere, and I’m so proud of our girls going out there and giving it everything they had.”
While the Lady Bearcats won big, both teams struggled to hit their shots early, with Ruston not scoring until Alexis Foster nailed a 3-point shot with 2:15 remaining in the opening stanza.
Ruston led only 9-2 at the end of the first quarter, but the Lady Bearcats came out blazing to start the second period thanks to a red-hot Mariah Hintze, who nailed three consecutive 3-pointers to push the RHS advantage to 18-2 with 6:15 left in the first half.
“Mariah Hintze caught fire,” Graf said. “I’ll give her credit. She is a heckuva shooter, but I thought she looked ready and focused to shoot and I thought she did a really good job on the defensive end. She brought an intensity that really got us going.”
Cedar Creek wouldn’t score again until Adams hit a jumper at the 5:32 mark of the second quarter and by halftime the Lady Bearcats had stretched its advantage to 28-8.
“We got good looks, but maybe we were rushing our shots a little bit,” Vandenlangenberg said. “Because the speed and the physicality of this game is something we hadn’t seen. Sometimes facing that you think you have to shoot it faster — you’ve got to rush your shots. Maybe we missed some because of that. I don’t know. We have OCS next Tuesday and I think tonight’s game has definitely helped prepare us for that.’
In the second half, Ruston slowly but surely wore down the Lady Cougars, not allowing Cedar Creek any closer than 21 points (39-18) in the final quarter.
“I give Cedar Creek tremendous props,’ Graf said. “Coach Van is a heckuva coach. He’s got them right where they’re supposed to be. They execute, they play hard and never take a play off. They’ve got some really salty kids that play together — they’re really good.”
Hintze led RHS with 13 points while Jaliyah McWain and Zaccheya McNeal added 11 points each for the Lady Bearcats.
Adams led Cedar Creek by scoring 27 of the Lady Cougars’ 30 points on the night.
“I will be the first to say that Sarah Adams is a ball player,” Graf said. “She has all of the intangibles. She has all the skill sets. She showed tonight she can play with the big girls. Everything about her is what you want in a player as a coach and I have a great respect for her and how she competed and carried herself. It’s good to see local kids represent Ruston like that no matter what school they play for.”
In the end, Graf said her biggest takeaway was to see Ruston’s love for girls basketball.
“I enjoyed seeing so much of Ruston in one place supporting girls basketball — two high quality teams — like they did. That was special. That’s something we don’t get to see all the time. I just thought everybody handled themselves with class. I loved seeing the gym the way it was and that atmosphere. For Ruston as a town, there was really something special for me to see and experience.”
Cedar Creek, now 18-1, will next play host to St. Frederick tonight, while Ruston (19-6) will try to remain undefeated in District 2-5A in a game at Alexandria Senior High on Friday.
Photo: Darrell James (dgjames.photoshelter.com)