PATCH GROVE – After having a shot at the outright Six Rivers West championship slip through their hands a week earlier, senior guards Blaire Lutes and Stephanie Roberts weren’t about to let another chance at the conference title get away from them.
Lutes and Roberts combined for 12 of Benton/Shullsburg’s 19 points during a key fourth quarter push as the Zephyr-Miners locked up a share of the Six Rivers West championship title with a gritty 50-39 victory over River Ridge in their season finale at RRHS on Thursday, Feb. 21.
The Zephyr-Miners (20-2 overall, 9-1 in SRW) finished tied atop the final league standings with Potosi, who earned their share of the crown with a 70-42 drubbing of Cassville on Thursday night.
The title is the first-ever for the young co-op, which is just in its second year of existence; and it’s the first conference championship for either school in 17 years. Shullsburg last won a league title in 1996, while Benton’s last title came in 1989.
“Both of these schools really take pride in their athletics. However, for some reason, the ladies have not had as much success as the boys’ teams,” said Benton/Shullsburg head coach Nathan Russell. “This title shows these girls– and all of the girls in our youth program– that we can be successful and win championships now and in the future.”
“I see winning as an added benefit. The initial crux of the coop was so that both teams could continue with basketball due to low numbers. Because of the buy-in that we have gotten from the kids and the parents, at all levels, we have laid a foundation for a successful partnership for years to come.”
Nothing came easy for the Zephyr-Miners on Thursday night as the host Timberwolves (10-12, 4-6) tried with all their might to prevent a league rival from winning a title on their home court for the second season in a row.
Last year, it was Belmont who celebrated a championship on the T’Wolves floor in the finale, and this year, it was Benton/Shullsburg’s turn.
“No matter their record, you know that River Ridge is going to be able to play tremendous defense and being senior night you knew at least one of their seniors was going to rise up and have a tremendous game. They had both tonight,” explained Russell.
The Zephyr-Miners trailed by one after one quarter of play, pulled ahead 26-24 at the half and took just a one-point lead into the fourth quarter before pulling away with a 19-9 scoring run in the final stanza.
“The key for us was to relax in the second half. We came out incredibly tight in the first half. You could see that the girls were feeling the pressure of the situation. The coaching staff was able to get them settled down at halftime, and we really came through in the fourth quarter,” Russell noted.
Lutes accounted for eight of her 10 points down the stretch and Roberts tallied four points of her seven points during the rally to help lock up the historic victory for the co-op.
“We stepped up offensively in the fourth quarter. We had played solid defense all night, but our seniors stepped up and hit some huge shots for us,” added Russell.
Lutes also added five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots. Roberts tallied four boards and two assists.
Sophomore Jenna Droessler paced a balanced scoring attack with 12 points along with two assists and two steals, while junior Sarah Redfearn notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds along with five assists and a block.
Sophomore Maggie Neis also netted seven points for the Zephyr-Miners.
Meagan Herrick led River Ridge with a game-high 15 points.
Benton/Shullsburg, the #3-seed, opened the WIAA Division 5 state tournament by hosting #14-seed Williams Bay (5-16) in a regional quarterfinal affair at Benton High School on Tuesday, Feb. 26. The results of that game weren’t available at press time.
If they won, the Zephyr-Miners would host either #6 Argyle (12-10) or #11 Juda (4-16) at Benton High School, on Friday, March 1, starting at 7 p.m.
“We know that our sectional presents the most difficult road of any division in the state with eight teams in our sectional being ranked in the top 10 at some point this year,” Russell said. “However, as we enter the playoffs, we feel that we can be competitive with all of them and turn our attention to going 1-0 each night.”
The tournament continues with regional semifinal games scheduled for Friday, March 1, and regional championship games set for Saturday, March 2.
Bent/Shulls… 10 16 5 19 – 50
River Ridge… 11 13 6 9 – 39
Benton/Shullsburg – Melissa Brant 3, Jenna Droessler 12, Blaire Lutes 10, Sarah Redfearn 11, Maggie Neis 7, Stephanie Roberts 7. Totals – 18 11-20 50.
River Ridge – Myers 5, White 4, Allen 6, Herrick 15, Patterson 3. Totals – 12 15-23 39.
3-point goals –B/S 3 (Neis 1, Roberts 2), RR 0. Total fouls – B/S 20, RR 15. Fouled out – B/S: Brant.