By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, Mo. —
There are times when all the hype is true. This was one of them.
The nationally ranked Incarnate Word Academy Red Knights capped a perfect season by rolling over the Webb City Cardinals 63-22 in the MSHSAA Class 4 girls basketball state championship on Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Sizable underdogs coming in, Webb City was unable to stop an Incarnate Word team that won its final three games by 52, 41 and 41 points.
“We came in and knew our odds,” Webb City junior point guard Mikaela Burgess said. “We wanted to come out with a fight, because that was easily the best team I’ve ever played against. You step on the floor and have all the fight in you, but that team will just shut you down. It’s hard to be disappointed in second at state. So that’s awesome for us, but Incarnate definitely deserved it. They are a wonderful team.”
The Red Knights (31-0), who have seven players who are considered Division I prospects by ESPN, dominated every statistical category. Incarnate Word shot 23-for-46 from the field, while limiting the Cardinals to 8-for-40.
Incarnate Word 6-foot-1 sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, who is considered one of the top recruits in the nation for 2015, registered 24 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach against some really good players,” Webb City coach Brad Shorter said. “Wait, I guess maybe unfortunate to have coached against some really good players — a couple kids who went to Duke and Oklahoma … But I think she’s (Collier’s) the best I’ve seen. I really do.”
And it was Collier who got the Red Knights started. She scored on Incarnate Word’s first three possessions to take a 6-2 lead. Collier finished 9-of-10 from the field and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line.
“She’s brought it all year,” Incarnate Word coach Dan Rolfes said. “That’s why she’s getting the recognition that she is. That’s why there were X-number of college coaches in the stands watching her. She just does so many things you can’t teach … I’m sure as heck glad I got her two more years.”
As Collier earned the majority of Webb City’s defensive attention, Incarnate Word senior guard Nia Roth seized the opportunity. Roth hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter to help extend the Red Knights’ lead to 19-6.
“When Nia is hitting her 3-pointers, that’s like the X-factor for us,” Rolfes said. “Because who are you going to guard? You’ve got someone out there shooting extremely well. It spreads the defense. You stretch out to guard her and then it leaves Gwen (Adams) or one of our posts open and it leaves space for Napheesa or Carly (Frala) to drive. So when Nia’s hitting her 3s, we’re pretty hard to beat.”
Burgess hit a 3-pointer near the end of the first quarter, and sophomore forward Desirea Buerge crashed the boards in the second quarter to help the Cardinals stay within 38-17 by halftime.
But Incarnate Word hit another gear in the second half, outscoring Webb City 16-2 in the third quarter to extend the lead to 54-19.
“Incarnate Word is an incredible team,” Shorter said. “We didn’t shoot very well in that basketball game, but they had a lot to do with that. Their length obviously gave us fits. I’m very proud of our kids. To get here has meant a lot to me for this group. The kids played really hard. I’m proud of them.”
Buerge led the Cardinals with eight points and nine rebounds, while Burgess and Casey Heger scored five points each.
Webb City finished its season with a 25-6 record and earned second in the state a year after finishing second in the district.
“I’m very proud,” Webb City junior Megan Heman said. “I’m very proud of my team and how far we came. If you look at us last year and how we ended our season and how we ended it this year, it’s just amazing the strides we’ve made.”
Webb City not only ran into the best team in Class 4, but arguably the best high school girls team in Missouri. Incarnate Word beat both Class 5 finalists — St. Joseph’s Academy and Rock Bridge — by double figures during the regular season. The Red Knights’ only close game of the season was a 59-56 win over Class 6A Alabama state champion Hoover in the season opener.
For a traditional program that has won five state championships, Rolfes admits that this may be the best Incarnate Word team of all time.
“I mean it’s hard to argue that it’s not, for sure,” he said. “But we’ve had some pretty good teams along the road. It’s hard to say.”
The good news for the Cardinals is that they return their entire roster for next season. The bad news is that Incarnate Word returns Collier and the bulk of their nucleus except for Roth and Frala.
Still, Webb City is looking at it as a mountain to climb.
“That’s one thing we thing we talked about in the locker room,” Burgess said. “You know, remember this feeling and use it to power ourselves back to the final four next year. We’re going to be preparing ourselves starting in the summer and carry it into the season. We know what we want, and we will be fighting for it every day in practice until we get there.”