VERDIGRIS — The winner, and still champion. Verdigris.
The Lady Cardinals won their fourth straight Will Rogers Conference basketball championship Monday night, turning back their final threat.
They faced down the challenger, the Claremore Sequoyah Lady Eagles, in the final seconds and held on for a 41-38 victory.
It was the Lady Cardinals’ 12th straight win. But, it also marked another conference championship.
Three times in the last four years, the Lady Cardinals have won the title outright. They shared the title in the fourth year.
They had a little trouble holding on to the outright championship down the stretch Monday night.
They were leading by five with five minutes to go before Sequoyah made a run.
Megan Fuller pulled the Lady Eagles within 40-38 with 2:44 left, and could have made it closer, but missed a free throw following her basket.
She then blocked two shots on the Lady Cardinals’ next possession and gave Sequoyah another chance.
A quick 3-point attempt did not find its mark and Julia Mitchell rebounded for Verdigris near the one-minute mark.
The Lady Cardinals could not cash in, then, neither could the Lady Eagles.
With 18 seconds showing, Meg Heskett drew a foul for Verdigris. She converted her first free throw, for a 41-38 cushion, then missed her second.
Fuller pulled down her 10th rebound and the Lady Eagles took a time out to set up their final fling.
A tying 3-point shot was launched, and failed. The rebound fell into the hands of Verdigris’ Cassie Clarke who clasped it tightly just as the final horn was sounding.
It was only fitting that the player with the ball in her hands at the end was Clarke.
She had scored 24 points and had collected 12 rebounds to shoulder the workload for the Lady Cardinals.
She was the only player on either team to score in all four quarters. And she did so by hitting 13 of 16 free throws. She had made 11 straight before missing her first shot in the fourth quarter.
Clarke finished with five of 12 from the field, including one of four from 3-point territory.
For Verdigris coach Gary Kennemer, the championship run can be a burden.
“It gets tougher,” he said. “There’s good people in our conference.
“The more you win, the bigger the bull’s-eye gets.
“They bring their best game against us every night.
“The good and bad about that is: Our kids know they have to go out and play well every night. The bad thing is, you’ve got to go play every night. There’s no nights off. Everybody’s going to come at you.
“I think the conference makes us better. I think conference play has helped prepare us for the playoffs the last couple of years.”
Sequoyah is one of those teams pushing Verdigris on a regular basis.
“They make it hard for us,” Kennemer said.
“I’ll say this, all the way to the state finals two years ago, Sequoyah defends us better than anybody does.
“They make it hard for us to score. We never score a lot against Sequoyah.”
But the Lady Cardinals have a tendency to make a little go a long ways.
When Verdigris defeated Sequoyah last month, the score was 36-30.
In their last 10 games, the Lady Cardinals have averaged 68 points per start.
Monday night, the Lady Cardinals did not shoot well, converting only 11 of 34 field goal attempts.
But, they also shut down Sequoyah when they had to. In the fourth quarter, as Sequoyah was making a move, only one of its 10 shots found its mark.
Andi Nichols supported Clarke on the boards. Although she did not score, Nichols contributed greatly with nine rebounds.
Sequoyah’s offense was balanced, topped off by Stevey Conger’s 10 points. Fuller, Melissa Goad and Kali May each delivered eight points.
Sequoyah outscored the Lady Cardinals from the field, 13 baskets to 11. The difference came at the free-throw line. Verdigris downed 19 of 26 free throws. Sequoyah had only nine of 14.
Verdigris will take the No. 6 ranking and a 20-6 record into the playoffs this week. Second-place Sequoyah is 15-7.
VERDIGRIS 41, SEQUOYAH 38
Sequoyah 5 7 18 8 — 38
Verdigris 12 4 16 9 — 41
Claremore Sequoyah — Conger 10, Fuller 8, Goad 8, May 8, Harrison 3, Morris 1, Weast 0.
Verdigris — Clarke 24, K.Heskett 9, M.Heskett 6, Nichols 2, Dargel 0, Mitchell 0.