After two hard fought battles – each losses – against highly ranked opponents in last week's Route 66 Shootout, Waynesville was surely prepared to play a hard-nosed conference rival in Rolla on Thursday.
A tight first quarter, however, showed that defending Ozark Conference champions Rolla weren't going down without a fight.
Had it not been for Waynesville senior guard Ethan Howser's buzzer-beating three-pointer, Rolla would have downed Waynesville in the first quarter.
Instead, Howser extended the Waynesville lead to 20-16 in the second quarter after making a second consecutive trey, drawing a foul and draining a free throw. Waynesville's momentum carried the Tigers to a 26-22 halftime lead, capped by an emphatic dunk by sophomore forward Juwan Morgan.
Fortunately for the Rolla Bulldogs, its players snuck back to a 28-26 lead just minutes into the third quarter. The lead was brief and Waynesville, once again, strung together a 13-4 run to recapture a solid lead of 43-38 at the end of the period.
The absence of the ill junior center Javante Armstrong loosened Waynesville's ability to grab rebounds and allowed Rolla to capitalize on several second-chance opportunities.
"Give them credit," Waynesville assistant coach Will harris said, "they hit the shots we gave them."
Then, a resilient Rolla dug in.
The Bulldogs battled back before bouncing buckets back and forth with Waynesville. Each team exchanged brief leads until Rolla scored on two straight possessions to extend its lead to 4 points with less than a minute remaining.
Waynesville couldn't turn its next possession into points and was forced to foul.
Rolla converted its free throws and ended a 19-point fourth quarter with a 57-50 victory.
"We're really starting to mature," said Rolla head coach Mark Miller. "What we've been doing in practice has been showing up in games."
For Waynesville, Morgan steered clear of foul trouble and finished with 23 points. No other player tallied double-digit figures.
Waynesville assistant coach Will Harris said, "Morgan had a hot start with 10 in the first, but we didn't go to him enough after that."
Much of that was attributed to never establishing an offensive rhythm, which was caused by a disruptive Bulldogs defense.
Thankfully for Waynesville the next scheduled event will offer a chance for revenge.
"We have to now turn around and get ready for their holiday tourney next week," Harris said of the upcoming Rolla Tournament.
In the first round of the bracket Waynesville will play (5-2) Festus on Thursday at 4 p.m.
At 5-5 overall and 1-1 in Ozark Conference play, Waynesville will be hungry to improve and string together a few victories for a repeat of last year's tournament champinship.
Page 2 of 2 - "We won the thing last year," Waynesville head coach Chris Pilz said, "hopefully we can do it again this year."
Waynesville practiced Friday, but will enjoy a brief three-day break before returning to the gym Dec. 26.