Scrappy defense and hustle plays got the Thunder Ridge girls to the Class 1A Division I state tournament and the Longhorns relied on the same formula to take the run a step further.
Thunder Ridge held off a late surge from Rural Vista to grind out a 48-44 victory on Thursday night in Gross Memorial Coliseum, advancing to the semifinals for the first time in school history.
The Longhorns came up with several key plays defensively, none bigger than a steal they forced with about 20 seconds left to protect a two-point lead.
“That’s what this team’s built around, just scrapping things out all year long,” Thunder Ridge coach Darren Grauerholz said.
No. 3-seeded Thunder Ridge (22-1) opened up a six-point lead with about 1:16 left before Rural Vista cut the lead to two with about 50 seconds left. Rural Vista had a chance to tie or take the lead in the closing moments but a couple Thunder Ridge defenders surrounded Lauren Campuzano in the corner and poked the ball free.
“I think she didn’t quite have possession of it and we kind of tipped it out and got it,” Thunder Ridge sophomore guard Brennan Kirchhoff said.
After the steal, Thunder Ridge went for the jugular, racing out in transition and sealing the game on a layup from Kennedy Rietzke to go up four with 14 seconds left.
“When she paused and hesitated, I thought, ‘Oh, Lord, don’t travel, don’t travel,’ ” Grauerholz said of Rietzke’s bucket. “But man, she hit that bucket and I looked up and there were 14 seconds left, so I was like, ‘Woo-hoo, I think we got this one!” I was tickled to see her get that one. It was a big one.”
Thunder Ridge came up with 11 steals, with junior guard Layne Pettijohn recording six.
“It’s just the hustle that Darren wants us to play with every game that helps us get that many steals,” Pettijohn said. “Darren really preaches to us that hustle and defense wins basketball games.”
Thunder Ridge opened strong with a 16-8 first quarter and led 24-23 at halftime. The third quarter went back and forth before the Longhorns grabbed a 36-34 lead on a three from junior Mariah Stauffer at the end of the frame.
The Longhorns led by as much as seven in the fourth and protected the lead down the stretch.
Grauerholz credited Kirchhoff, who led the Longhorns with 14, for keeping Thunder Ridge’s energy level up throughout the game.
“Brennan Kirchhoff is kind of the motor that runs this team and I think everyone kind of feeds of that and they get a lot of energy from it,” he said.
“We just knew we had to play hard defense and get our steals like we usually do and run our fast break,” Kirchhoff added.
The Longhorns will make their semifinals debut at 6:30 p.m. on Friday against St. Paul, which advanced with a 26-19 win over St. John-Hudson.
“We’re pretty excited,” said Stauffer, who finished with 13 points. “We definitely earned our spot.”
Rural Vista was led by Jordyn Sanford’s 13 points while Campuzano and Holly Brockmeier added 12 and 11, respectively.