Nov. 20—SULLY — Crossing their Ts. Dotting their Is.
When it comes to taking the next steps in progressing towards a special season, it comes down to the little things this season for the Ottumwa girls basketball team. The little things ultimately made the difference on Friday during the Hall-of-Pride scrimmage between the Bulldogs and Knoxville with a 3-pointer by Abbie Keitges with five seconds left lifting Knoxville to a 44-43 win over Ottumwa in a thriller just days before each team tips off the regular season.
"I just got done telling my coaching staff that I love playing this scrimmage. It allows us to see things after two weeks of practice that we have to get better at," Ottumwa head girls basketball coach Joe Vandenberg said. "There were some things we have to tighten up and, offensively, we saw some different pressure. It's hard to run the same stuff every day in practice. If you call something out, your players know it and recognize things. Being able to run our stuff against a different team is nice to see."
Even though Knoxville would come out on top in the Hall-of-Pride scrimmage for the third straight year, Friday's contest showed the strides that Ottumwa has made from year to year. Two years ago in Knoxville, the young Bulldogs were beaten by 17 points days before tipping off what would wind up being a 6-17 season.
Last year, Knoxville held on to beat Ottumwa 40-32 despite giving up the final 13 points to the Bulldogs. Ottumwa went on to more than double their win total, posting a winning record of 13-8.
On Friday, Ottumwa led Knoxville most of the night, building a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. After giving up the go-ahead 3-pointer to Keitges, the more experienced Bulldogs nearly pulled off a full-court play that led to a winning basket with two long passes finding Rylea Hinebaugh at the wing, who found Nellie Morgan open in the paint in front of the basket.
Morgan, who scored a team-leading 13 points in the scrimmage, had the look to win the game for Ottumwa. Time, however, ran out before the Bulldog junior could get a potential game-winning shot off.
"We gave ourselves a couple of great looks. I told the girls in the huddle during the timeout you've got four dribbles and shot, or three dribbles and two passes," Vandenberg said. "I would have been happy with Rylea taking a shot from 3-point range. We ultimately were just a half-a-second too short. You put 5.5 seconds on the clock and we might be celebrating a win at the buzzer."
Ultimately, the scrimmage gave both teams reasons to smile on Friday. The Panthers, coming off a 15-8 season, showed resiliency rallying in the final minutes to come out on top.
Ottumwa, meanwhile, played with the confidence of a team looking to improve on the program's first winning season since 2020. Ottumwa returns the talented junior class that have been playing together since their six-win freshmen campaign.
"We know the past couple years have been a little rough early in the seasons for us," Ottumwa junior Camdyn Crouse said after scoring 11 points on Friday in the Hall-of-Pride scrimmage. "We know what our goals are and what we want to get done. We accomplished a lot of our goals for this scrimmage. We know where we're at and what we need to work on for our future games. We know what we want to work on and what we want to change."
Crouse led Ottumwa in scoring last year, averaging 11.1 points a contest while also collecting a team-best three assists a game as a sophomore. Morgan, who averaged just 6.2 points a game last season, joins Hunter Caldwell as a post duo for the Bulldogs that returns to the court after combining to grab over 10 rebounds a game last season.
"Knowing how hard we push in those clutch situations gives us the confidence and the adrenaline boost we need to be able to execute a play late that gives us a chance to win," Morgan said. "I was just trying to stay straight up, trying not to foul and do what's best for the team. This game gives us the push to fight through those close games, because we're going to have a lot of those this year."
Ottumwa proved several time last season they could come through in the clutch, going 5-3 in games decided by 10 points or less including four straight wins in games decided by fewer than 10 points in the second half of the season. Overall, the Bulldogs finished winning 10 of 15 games in the 2023 portion of last season to clinch a winning campaign.
This year, with more experience, Ottumwa hopes to improve on their 13-win total as the Bulldogs seek to contend for the Iowa Alliance Conference title. Morgan, for one, is shooting for the stars going into this season.
"We want to win. We want to make each other better every day," Morgan said. "We want to be state champions. That's always the goal. You might as well dream big."
— Scott Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.