The uncertainty continued Saturday for the Blue Springs girls basketball team. At the time, it wasn’t such a bad thing.
Blue Springs gained that extended uncertainty with a wire-to-wire 51-41 victory over previously undefeated Liberty in Class 5 state quarterfinal game in front of a limited gathering at Blue Springs South. The Wildcats knew they had earned their first trip to state since 2013. What they didn’t know, just as they didn’t after a topsy-turvy Thursday, was whether or not they would make that trip.
On Monday, the Missouri State High School Activities Association made the announcement they didn’t want to hear: The Class 4 and 5 state tournaments were canceled, victims to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"They really want to go see how they’re going to do," Blue Springs coach Mark Spigarelli said after the game. "But if we don’t, what a great way to go out. But I don’t want to go out like that."
Saturday’s quarterfinal was supposed to take place at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, where Blue Springs (24-5) convincingly bounced Lee’s Summit West in a sectional matchup last Wednesday.
The next day, as professional sports leagues halted their seasons and the NCAA axed its men’s and women’s tournaments, the Wildcats learned that Silverstein was shutting its doors until April 5 after the city of Independence declared an emergency to combat the virus.
The game, and three other quarterfinals also scheduled for Silverstein, was moved to Blue Springs South. Same time, but each team could only have 60 "essential personnel" – players, coaches, administrators and parents and selected family members or friends – in the gym.
"It has been crazy," Blue Springs senior forward Jayla Sample said. "All day at school people were asking us if our game was going to get canceled, who can come, was it limited. We all had a talk and we were like it’s a little hard to focus right now on our game, but we agreed that once tipoff started, it was gone."
And how. Blue Springs jumped out to an 11-0 lead, with Jada Williams popping two 3-pointers from the top of the key and Sample also hitting from long range. Blue Springs led 15-4 at the end of the first quarter, and the Wildcats would stay up double digits until the fourth quarter.
None of this surprised Spigarelli, who said the Wildcats looked dialed in during Friday’s practice.
"I got on the bus going over here and I’m like, ‘You know why I’m so excited? Because I know you guys are ready to play," Spigarelli said. "And they came out and they were very ready to play.’"
Williams came ready to play. The 5-7 freshman scored 22 points even as she battled Liberty senior Olivia Nelson, who like Williams is one of the city’s premier point guards. Nelson had 12 points, but Williams and the rest of the Wildcats denied her from driving the lane.
"That was a good battle," Spigarelli said. "Probably two of the best point guards in the city going head to head. That’s the way it should be in a quarterfinal."
Blue Springs’ half-court, lane clogging defense also limited 5-10 Jillian Fleming, Liberty’s power player inside, to five points, none until the fourth quarter. Spigarelli put senior Aliyah Bello on Fleming, who held her in check much like she did Truman’s high-scoring Deon Monroe in the district final.
"We’ve full-court pressed all year, but not in the last two games due to our opponent’s ability to handle the ball," Spigarelli said. "We were not going to take the ball away from Nelson in the backcourt, so we decided to focus all of our energy on half-court defense and getting stops in a half-court set."
That defense, and a patient half-court offense, helped Blue Springs build a 25-13 lead by halftime. That lead grew to 31-14 after Williams hit two free throws after drawing a foul inside off Nelson midway through the third quarter.
Liberty (27-1) cut the lead to 35-24 with a couple of 3-pointers at the end of the period, and opened the fourth period with a 9-2 run to pull within 37-33. But the Wildcats reeled off the next seven points to go back up 44-33 and held off the Blue Jays by making 7 of 10 free throws over the final 2 minutes.
"We knew they were going to come back swinging," Spigarelli said. "We knew they were going to give us a shot and they did give us a shot like any great team would. But we weathered it."
Blue Springs held out hope its season wouldn’t end there, and with good reason. The Class 1-3 state tournaments played out last weekend in front of restricted crowds, and MSHSAA announced plans to do the same for Class 4 and 5 as late as Sunday night.
Those hopes, and the season, came to an end Monday.
"I’ll definitely be heartbroken if we can’t play this final four," Williams said. "I really believe this is our year and these other girls I’m playing with are some of the best in the state."