WATERTOWN — As the clock counted down in the Class A girls' basketball state championship game, the St. Thomas More student section couldn’t help but put its own twist as the seconds ticked away.
Once the clock hit five seconds the fans started to chant “FIVE, FIVE, FIVE,” as in, the amount of consecutive state titles the Cavaliers now have earned.
Composure was the key word as STM held off a game Madison squad 54-41 Saturday night to win its fifth straight state title and the sixth in the last seven years.
It wasn’t always easy this season, but that is what St. Thomas More coach Brandon Kandolin said also has made this team special.
“I think where it’s different is we were faced with some adversity,” he said. “We took a couple of losses (throughout the season) that we knew we probably should have won, and I think it exposed some things for us that we needed to work on.”
Emotions were high as the countdown wore on. Madison was able to keep it close for most of the game, but when STM needed to hit free throws to secure the title, everyone on the Cavalier bench knew the game was over.
So they let themselves smile a little bit.
“When the clock was winding down and we were shooting free throws, we kind of knew it was going to go our way,” senior Klaire Kirsch said.
“It’s emotional for me as a senior because it’s my last time out here, but we worked so hard this season, and to see the success that we’ve had this season and have it come back as a win was amazing.”
It was a championship game where Cinderella was nipping at the defending champs heals, but couldn’t quite surpass the Cavaliers.
Madison only briefly led in the first quarter, but was very close for most of the game. At the end of one, the Cavs led 16-11 and at halftime it was 23-20.
In the third quarter the Cavaliers were still trying to pull away from the Bulldogs, but the No. 8 seed with nothing to lose wouldn’t let them.
Until the fourth quarter.
The STM defense clamped down and it started forcing Madison turnovers.
The Bulldogs would lose the turnover battle 17-8, with many coming in the final eight minutes.
“I think the confidence changed once we got settled down,” Kandolin said. “I called a timeout at the end of the third quarter just to remind them of the composure, remind them that you’ve got them somewhat on the ropes and they need to be able to come out and make plays, and we need to play solid defense, and we made those plays.”
The Cavaliers outscored Madison in the fourth 15-5, and will be bringing another banner back to Rapid City.
“The theme all year I knew was going to be composure because we had a group that likes to get out and push the tempo and work hard. Sometimes the decision making wasn’t there,” Kandolin said. “They battled and they came together at the right times in games that we needed to they made good decisions.”
STM senior and Augustana recruit Aislinn Duffy continued the Duffy family legacy, and had a monstrous state title game. She was tasked with guarding Nicole Brown, one of the bigger and more talented players in the state.
She was no match for Duffy on Saturday night.
“My teammates give me a lot of confidence for sure,” Duffy said. “Even when I do miss shots, they’re always there to pick me back up, and my coaches. They’re always there, I think confidence is a big thing. Them telling me I could do something made it a lot easier to do something.”
Duffy had 26 points, six rebounds and went 7-of-8 from the free-throw line, many coming to close out the state championship.
“I have shot a lot of free throws,” she said. “I think that I have the rhythm, but going into it confident really helps.”
In the moments before Duffy would shoot her free throws, Kirsch would come up to her and say something. The gesture looked as if they were reflections on a journey that has seen five straight state titles.
“In practice we give each other scenarios, like 'we’ll say the shot is to get to state, or in state and down by one,'” she said. “When we knew we had it sealed, we would just kind of say, ‘we did it.’ Or ‘we got this.’”
For the other locker room, heartbreak, but also pride, were the themes of the evening. If STM had been through a lot of adversity, the Bulldogs had been through more.
They came into the state tournament with a 13-10 record and as the No. 8 seed. They had to knock the No. 1 seed Belle Fourche (56-42) and the No. 4 seed West Central (60-44) to get to the championship game.
Coach Stacey Anderson said her first year on the job at Madison hasn’t been easy, but she was proud of the effort her team gave in getting one win away from the ultimate prize.
“It’s been such a roller coaster ride, but these girls have come so far, and I’m really proud of them,” she said.
Madison finishes the year 15-11. Jessi Giles was the leading scorer for Madison with 15 points.
STM finished the year 23-3. Champions of the state in the last five years and six of the last seven. Kandolin said the words still sound strange to him.
“It’s still weird to try to think about,” he said. “It’s rare. In Class A history in South Dakota there’s only been 18 different teams that have won a championship, so it’s really hard to believe that we have six now.”