By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, Mo. —
There’s no way to sugarcoat it.
The Webb City girls basketball team enters the state championship as sizable underdogs.
When the Cardinals take the floor in the MSHSAA Class 4 state title game at 4:50 p.m. today at Mizzou Arena, they will be facing a nationally ranked Incarnate Word Academy team that hasn’t had a close game since November.
“They are extremely athletic,” Webb City coach Brad Shorter said. “I would venture to guess most of those kids play year round. It’s a basketball school. Coach (Dan) Rolfes does a really nice job with them, and they are kind of the Goliath of Missouri girls basketball right now.”
The Red Knights (30-0) have dismantled all of their competition during the state tournament. Incarnate Word beat Dexter 66-25 in the semifinals on Thursday. Before that, the Red Knights rolled past once-beaten Kirksville 78-26 in the quarterfinals and clobbered MICDS 61-36 in the sectionals.
Incarnate Word has won 26 of its 30 games by 20 points or more. The Red Knights’ only game played within single digits was a 59-56 win over Hoover (Ala.) to open the season on Nov. 24. Hoover won the Alabama Class 6A state championship.
The St. Louis-based private school features numerous collegiate prospects.
Napheesa Collier, a 6-1 sophomore forward, entered the semifinals averaging 24.4 points and 11.7 rebounds. She totaled 28 points and 16 boards against Dexter.
“She’s phenomenal,” Shorter said. “She may be the best girls basketball player in the state of Missouri right now as a sophomore.”
Guards Nia Roth and Nakiah Bell average 11.7 and 10.8 points, respectively.
Gwen Adams, a 6-0 junior forward, and McKenna Treece, a 6-3 junior center, provide the Red Knights two more big bodies inside. Both average about 7 points and 5 rebounds.
So now that you’ve heard all the reasons people are saying Webb City can’t win, let the Cardinals tell you why they believe they can.
“We play together as a team, and that’s how we’ve always played,” Webb City sophomore forward Desirea Buerge said. “If we do everything right and listen to our coaches and not try to go off on our own, we can be pretty dang good. When we play together and listen, things get rolling.”
Webb City (25-5) is coming off a 54-53 win against Smithville on Thursday. Junior point guard Mikaela Burgess led the Cardinals with 23 points and five steals. Buerge added 13 points, and junior forward Casey Heger provided 10 points and 12 rebounds. They, along with junior Kaitlin Beason, have all produced 20-point games this season.
The Cardinals may match up with Incarnate Word as well as any team in the state. The 6-2 Heger and 6-0 Buerge are athletic posts who also can shoot from the outside. Burgess is one of the premier point guards in the state with her ability to drive with either hand and pull up for a 3-pointer. In the win over Smithville, Burgess made four treys and converted two three-point plays.
The outside shooting of Beason and freshman guard Lexey Kneib provide the Cardinals with two more weapons.
“I think we have the most heart, and I think we have a lot of talent on our team,” Heger said. “It’s just about how good we play as a team and playing unselfishly. I know they’re a good team, but I feel like we have the potential to beat them.”
Still, the Cardinals aren’t downplaying the challenge before them. Specifically, Heger and Buerge will have their work cut out for them against Collier and Incarnate’s other post players.
“We’re just going to have to do a really good job,” Shorter said. “We can’t let her have second chances. We have to box her out. A kid like that is going to get some points. She may get 15 or 20. If we can keep her under 20, I think we’ve done an outstanding job on her. But we got to do a good job on everyone else, because it will take more than just her.”
A good start will likely be important for Webb City. The Red Knights jumped out to a 21-2 lead on Dexter, not allowing their semifinal opponent to make a field goal in the first quarter.
“We don’t want to play from behind,” Shorter said. “We’ve got to get out to a good start. By no means do we need to get up 10 or 15, but we’ve got to play solid ball. Incarnate Word has been fortunate that they haven’t had a whole lot of close games this season. We’d like to put them in one.”