Girls basketball: Second-ranked Rockets survive season opener

Nov. 20—SULLY — One night into the high school basketball season, the second-ranked team in Class 2A found itself on upset alert.

Coming off the program's first state tournament appearance in 56 years, the EBF girls opened a highly-anticipated season facing a five-point deficit early in the fourth quarter at Lynnville-Sully. The Rockets were still behind with under three minutes left and were tied with less than two minutes to go in hopes of avoiding their first regular-season loss in over 21 months.

"It's nerve-racking. We weren't in that position much last season," EBF junior Kate Shafer said. "I feel like it's better to play loose and relaxed then all tense and nervous. You start to overthink things and start forcing things. You just need to have fun in those situations."

Ultimately, it was Kate Shafer that scored the game-clinching free throw for the Rockets with 15 seconds left. EBF outscored Lynnville-Sully, 14-7, in the fourth quarter to earn a 48-44 road win over the Hawks.

"We knew this was going to be a tough game. It always is with (Lynnville-Sully)," EBF head coach Tony Fenton said. "They took us out of some our stuff, but I'm proud that we kept battling. We found a way to pull it out."

The Rockets, 24-1 last season, return four of their five starters and five players that played in all 25 games during their historic 2022-23 campaign. The returning experience led to the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union to rank EBF second only to Dike-New Hartford in the preseason poll released just hours before the first night of regular-season girls high school basketball action on Friday.

The Rockets used that returning experience to confidently find a way to rally after a drive to the basket Majesta Vos on the opening possession of the fourth quarter gave Lynnville-Sully a 39-34 lead. EBF faced a similar fourth-quarter deficit last year in the regional finals at Marshalltown, rallying from a 47-40 deficit against Hudson to clinch the program's first state tournament trip since 1967 with a 71-65 win in triple overtime.

"That game actually popped into my mind at one point," Kate Shafer said. "When we were down by five, it was kind of like the game against Hudson. I feel like that experience kind of helped us be more calm in that situation. I'm not sure if Lynnville-Sully has been in that type of situation before. You could tell they were starting to get tense and started to speed things up."

EBF took advantage of timely turnovers to catch Lynnville-Sully a 39-39 with a long jumper by Kaylee Helm tying the score with 6:19 left. Helm, making her first start after coming off the bench in all 25 games last season as a sophomore, would hit an even bigger shot just over three minutes later, sinking a jumper from the free throw line with 2:56 left that gave the Rockets the lead for the first time since the first half.

"I tried to drive on my first basket and I noticed my defender left me, so I figured I could try and take a shot," Helm said. "The second time, the same thing happened. I just took a shot. I just tried to play my role. It's definitely a confidence booster to come through like that."

Vos drove in to tie the game with 1:57 to go before responded with a tiebreaking free throw by Molly Shafer after drawing a foul attacking the basket. Coming off her third straight first-team all-state volleyball season, Molly Shafer would lead EBF on the hardwood in the season opener with a 21-point, 14-rebound double-double including 15 points in the second half after picking up her third foul late in the first half.

"Lynnville-Sully was an aggressive team. I wasn't getting the calls, but you're not always going to get the calls," Molly Shafer said. "You just have to take it like a champ, keep shooting and really try your best not to let it get the best of you."

Molly Shafer drove in for a lay-up with 51.4 seconds left in transition off a feed from Ava Eastlick, giving EBF a 47-44 lead. Lynnville-Sully, already having made seven 3-pointers in the first 29 minutes, could not connect on an eighth shot from beyond the arc before Kate Shafer collected her second steal of the game taking the ball away from Vos before drawing a foul and sinking the second of two free attempts after an EBF timeout to clinch the season-opening win for the Rockets.

"Getting that last free throw in was a big relief," Kate Shafer said. "I've been in that position a lot to test out whether I prefer having a timeout or not. That worked for me that time."

Aliya Wagamon added 14 points, eight rebounds and four steals for EBF. Eastlick scored seven while Kate Shafer led the Rockets with eight assists and four blocked shots.

"You have to dig down sometimes, find that steal or make that shot, whatever the play is that you have to make," Fenton said. "We've still got a lot of learning to do, but we found a way to win this one. We're not surprised to see our name up there near the top of the rankings. We've got a big target on our back. That just makes it a little bigger."

Kate Harthoorn led Lynnville-Sully (0-1) with 15 points, sinking 5-15 shots from 3-point range on Friday. Alaina Roberts added 11 points for the Hawks while Vos scored six points while pulling in 11 rebounds and collecting four blocks.

EBF (1-0) returns to the court at home on Tuesday against Pleasantville.

— Scott Jackson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.