Girls basketball: Bunnies shut down Falcons with defense

FISHER — That is how you end a tournament.

Paced by a game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds from junior center Caitlin Cole, along with a pressure-packed defense and solid bench production, the Fisher girls basketball team had no problem handling rival Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 39-18 on Friday night.

The win in the fifth-place game of the Lady Falcon/Bunnie Tournament at Fisher capped off an impressive 3-1 opening week for the Bunnies, which saw head coach Ken Ingold’s squad suffer a narrow 41-40 loss on Thursday night to Paxton-Buckley-Loda and earn a 44-40 overtime win against Villa Grove on Nov. 13.

“I think it gives us a lot of confidence as a young team since we didn’t really know what to expect,” Fisher junior guard Olivia Heffernan said. “We just knew we were going to try really hard. Our coaches got us ready, though, because they said it’s basically not a choice to lose to Gibson.”

The Bunnies never trailed against the Falcons (1-3) in a game that was only tied once at 2-2 in the first 90 seconds. The Bunnies forced GCMS into 11 of their 28 turnovers in the first quarter and darted out to a 12-2 lead with 2:41 left after Cole scored inside off a nice pass from Heffernan (two points, seven assists, four steals).

“We’re struggling against pressure right now,” GCMS head coach Kyle Bielfeldt said. “We don’t have a true point guard, so anytime we come across a team that’s going to play pressure ball like that, we’re going to turn the ball over.”

Fisher didn’t let up in the second quarter, taking a 27-9 lead into halftime that allowed Ingold to rest his starters for significant stretches in the second half.

With the fast-paced nature the Bunnies played at Friday night, Ingold made good use of his bench, which saw almost a hockey-line shift midway through the first quarter. Sophomore reserves Delaney Cochran, Courtney Delaney, Kelcie Fredrickson, Rachel Tobeck and Leah Williams replaced starters Cole, Heffernan, junior forward Hannah Varner, junior guard Sydney Blackwell and senior forward Gina Masko.

The subs didn’t miss a beat, either, amplifying the pressure put on GCMS.

“Those sophomores are really quick,” Ingold said. “I want them to come in and really pressure the ball, plus it gives the juniors and Gina a rest. I really like that group of sophomores playing together.”

GCMS went on a mini 5-0 run late in the first quarter and early part of the second quarter to cut its deficit to 12-7 with 7:22 left before halftime after junior guard Brianna Wall knocked down a jumper, but Fisher quickly answered.

The Bunnies went on an 11-0 spurt during the subsequent six minutes, with Cole and Varner combining for 10 of the points. Varner complemented Cole’s solid play inside with a steady night of her own, scoring seven points and grabbing eight rebounds.

“It helps a lot because they focus on me more because I’m tall,” Cole said. “On one of the plays, there were two people on me, and Hannah was just wide open.”

Four of her points came in this stretch, with one off an offensive rebound putback and another on a drive to the basket.

“I just went to the open spot and tried to get the ball,” Varner said about her rebounding strategy. “I don’t really have any technique besides try to get the ball, and that seems to work.”

Junior guard Sydney Blackwell (three points) got in on the act, too, with a running floater she sank to pad Fisher’s lead to 25-9 with less than a minute left.

While the Bunnies’ shooting cooled off in the second half — 4-of-23 (17 percent) compared to 13-of-28 (46 percent) in the first half for a total of 17-of-51 (33 percent) — their lead grew to 34-11 with 3:10 left in the third quarter after Cole scored on two straight possessions on offensive rebound putbacks.

“We knew Cole would be their go-to,” Bielfeldt said. “She got her points, which I expected. The other ones stepped up in big situations, so you’ve got to give your hats off to Fisher on that.”

Fisher’s defense limited GCMS to 8-of-30 (27 percent) shooting from the floor, including 1-of-5 (20 percent) from 3-point range and 1-of-5 (20 percent).

The winning record the Bunnies take into their next game — a 7 p.m. tip next Monday against Lexington at home in the squad’s Heart of Illinois Conference opener that will end a 10-day layoff between games — was a pleasant surprise after the first week of the season.

“It feels really good because we have a young team, and a lot of people weren’t questioning us, but wondering how our season was going to turn out,” Varner said. “I think we not only gave ourselves confidence, but we gave our fans and our community confidence.”

Notes: St. Joseph-Ogden routed Villa Grove 52-21 in the championship game at GCMS on Friday night while Iroquois West edged PBL 35-34. In the seventh-place game at Fisher, Danville Schlarman knocked off Dwight 52-45.

— Cole and Blackwell represented Fisher on the all-tournament team.

— In the loss against PBL, PBL senior guard Amanda Ypya hit a 5-foot floater with five seconds left to hand Fisher its first defeat  this season. Blackwell (team-high 16 points) gave Fisher a 40-39 lead with 22 seconds left when she made three free throws. Cole (10 points, 12 rebounds), junior forward Sami Browning (seven rebounds) and Heffernan (eight assists) also contributed for the Bunnies.

— In the win against Villa Grove, Cole finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while Blackwell (10 points), Varner (seven points, eight rebounds) and Masko (six points, five steals) chipped in. Fisher led 18-12 at halftime, but found themselves down 27-25 to start the fourth quarter before forcing overtime after regulation ended with the game tied at 37. A layup by Heffernan with less than a minute left in overtime gave the Bunnies the lead for good.
mdaniels@rantoulpress.com

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