Girls’ basketball: Roland-Story comes up just short in 3A quarterfinals

Hayes Gardner Special to the Herald
Justin Morton and Roland-Story gave Des Moines Christian a fourth quarter scare, but couldn’t come away with a win in the state tournament. Photo by Joe Randleman

DES MOINES — Trailing by 11 points early in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s Class 3A quarterfinal game, Roland-Story could have laid down. After all, they had already exceeded expectations by qualifying for the state tournament.

But the Norse scraped, clawed and, in one case, bled as they battled back against Des Moines Christian to put together a 10-0 run and trail just 40-39 with three minutes left.

However, in the closing moments, No. 3 Des Moines Christian showed why they have not lost since November, as the Lions were able to pull away late to defeat the No. 6 Norse 49-41 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

“I thought we showed a lot of character, and we played the Norsemen way the whole night,” Roland-Story coach Justin Morton said.

What was a close game throughout the first half turned into a double-digit Lion lead with just seven minutes left. But Roland-Story junior Juliann Clark converted an and-one, freshman Reece Johnson hit a 3, and freshman Reagan Barkema netted a floater and then a layup to pull the Norse within one.

But Des Moines Christian’s Emma Veenstra hit a 3 with two minutes, 31 seconds left and then grabbed a steal for the Lions. During a scramble for the ball, Roland-Story senior post MaKayla Geise caught a blow to the face that caused her to bleed from her nose. She sat for the game’s final two minutes, as Veenstra continued to ice the game for the Lions. She scored eight of the Lions’ final nine points.

Veenstra entered the game just 3-of-18 from 3-point range this season, so Morton was prepared to let her shot the ball from deep — which she did. She knocked down 2-of-3 deep balls, and Morton tipped his cap to her.

“They won 22 games in a row for a reason,” he said. “They’re very well-coached. They’re very disciplined. They move the ball well. They find the open girl, and when all five of them are hitting shots, I mean, they can beat anybody.”

Roland-Story got 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks from do-it-all Barkema, as well as 14 points senior Susie Weaver, who hit 4-of-6 3-pointers.

“It was really fun,” Weaver said of competing in the state tournament. “We all play for each other, so we were all super excited that we got to do it as a group, because we’ve worked so hard together throughout the years.”

Morton has a trademark red blazer that he wears for big Roland-Story games. He wore it for Roland-Story’s exciting come-from-behind 44-43 win over Clear Lake in the regional final last week, and he wore it the last time the Norse made the state tournament — in 2011, when they reached the semifinals.

But this time, it didn’t bring quite enough good luck.

Des Moines Christian shot a red-hot 9-of-16 on 3-pointers to spearhead them to the semifinals. They were led by Veenstra’s 15 points and post Kaili Lawson’s 14 points.

Despite the loss, Monday was an exciting moment for the Roland-Story program. Morton noted that it was fulfilling to see his two seniors, Weaver and Geise, reach the big stage.

“I think in a way, it just kind of validates all the work that has been put in,” he said. “To see the girls play as hard as they do, and to see them get rewarded for that is very satisfying.”

While the Norse will miss the stout interior presence of Geise and the sharpshooting of Weaver, they also return a bulk of their contributors from this season. With Barkema, in particular, leading the way, plus returning guards Juliann Clark and Kylie Tjernagel, it could be another special year for Roland-Story.

“I’m confident that this isn’t the last time that we’ll be heard of,” Morton said. “We have a lot of girls coming back next year, and we’ll keep plugging away.”