Seeing their lead dwindle down to two with under two minutes to play, Cooper never flinched.
They got a couple stops when needed, rebounded the basketball and hit a couple free throws down the stretch to defeat Ryle, 48-42 in the girls Ninth Region championship game.
It’s the little things that mattered on Saturday night at Truist Arena, facing an opponent for the seventh time over the last two seasons.
“Schools are a couple miles away from each other, our kids know them, they know us. You’re not going to come in here and do anything different or change your game plan. It was just it was an all out battle,” Jaguars coach Justin Holthaus said. “We just played them nine days ago and it was a knockdown, drag out in that game as well.”
Whether it be a block out for a rebound, making an extra pass, or diving on the floor for a ball like Liz Freihofer did in the closing seconds, Cooper got to this point because of those little things.
“It’s really everything. The separation between both of these teams is so so small that you got to make those winning type of plays and our kids have been battle tested with our schedule all year. We played a tough schedule, played tough opponents. We just knew in that fourth quarter we had to lock in and we had to do everything that we could to pull out a win,” Holthaus said.
Freihofer earned tournament MVP honors, finishing Saturday’s contest with a team-high 15 points to go with three rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. It was quite the week for Freihofer that started last Sunday, scoring her 1,000th career point against Newport Central Catholic in the quarterfinals, picking up an Eastern Kentucky University offer during the week and capping things off with a region title on Saturday.
“It was quite a week. Got to enjoy every minute of it,” Liz Freihofer said.
Liz’s older sister Kay added 10 points and hit two triples. Kay Freihofer has seen all kinds of adversity during this two-year run, a broken wrist, an injured shoulder, but Saturday it was all worth it.
“Actually on the bus ride over here I was thinking to myself all that I’ve been through and I thought, ‘We’re not ending this tonight. We got to keep going,” Kay Freihofer said.
Kay Freihofer and Whitney Lind have been a part of the varsity program since eighth grade. When they first put the uniform on, they went 3-24 in their first season. The gradual rise took some time, but when it did it really took off, 9-19 the following year, 17-5 the next year, to state semifinalists last year and now here today, 29-3 to this point and considered a serious threat at Rupp Arena for the state tournament.
“We’ve talked about the process. Every single day working, we’ve been trying to do this for a long time. Win district championships, region championships. But you know, when I took over three years ago, especially the seniors right now, they said they wanted to leave a legacy. They want to leave a legacy for our program, and they’ve done a pretty good job of it,” Holthaus said.
Holthaus’ first season was in 2020-21. While the three mentioned names have played a major part of the success, all three named to the All-Tournament team, the team buy-in concept and sacrificing for the team is spread throughout.
Maleah Alexander provides bulldog like on the ball defense, hitting a key 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter off and turn what was a two-point lead up to seven after Lind hit a layup at the end of the third.
“That three was humungous,” Holthaus said. “We needed something to get us going in the right direction.”
Logan Palmer provides spacing with her 3-point shot and grabbed some crucial rebounds down the stretch, the last one followed by two free throws in the closing seconds breaking out a “Rupp Arena, Rupp Rupp Arena” chant in the Jaguars student section.
Then there’s key players off the bench in Haylee Noel, providing three big points in the third quarter and Bella Deere who brings in length off the bench. Not to mention the energy off the bench, most notably brought by senior Yamilet Rondon.
“They’re a tight-knit group. Yami Rondon came her sophomore year, she brings great energy. She brings great energy and a great leader for our program as well,” Holthaus said.
Saturday was a battle. Seeing a team seven times in two years will do that. Ryle stayed within striking distance all night. The two were tied at 13 after six lead changes in the opening quarter.
A couple of Kay Freihofer 3-pointers to open up the second gave Cooper a little cushion, but Austin Johnson’s steal and layup near the end of the half made it 25-21 going into the break. Johnson would finish with a game-high 16 for the Raiders.
But offensive woes plagued Ryle in the third, Cooper opening up with a 9-3 run in the first nearly six minutes of the quarter, the Jaguars extending their lead to 32-24 with 2:15 left in the frame.
Again Ryle responded, a 6-0 run getting them within two, Lind ending the run with a layup with under five seconds left in the quarter for a 34-30 Cooper lead headed to the fourth.
“We’re seniors and juniors now. We’ve been here, we were here last year. We played at Rupp last year. We’ve seen everything, so we had to just keep our composure and play our game,” Lind said.
Alexander’s triple followed by a Liz Freihofer layup and suddenly things were back up to nine again at 39-30.
But as a team that’s playing in their fifth region final in the last six years, Ryle responded once again.
A 10-3 run capped by two Abby Holtman free throws made it a 42-40 game with 1:39 to play.
A turnover followed and Ryle had a chance for a lead, Johnson’s 3-point attempt bouncing off the rim and falling just right into Liz Freihofer’s hands, who hit 1-of-2 free throws with 56 seconds left to follow.
The Raiders were called for a walk on the other end, Palmer receiving a breakout pass for a layup. Holtman answered on the other end with a jumper, Liz Freihofer sinking a free throw to make it a two-possession game with 19 seconds remaining.
Palmer secured the rebound on a missed shot and the party was on, Cooper headed back to Lexington where they’ll face Sixth Region champion Mercy in the first round on Thursday night at 6 p.m.
The Jaguars defeated Mercy during the regular season at the Louisville Invitational Tournament, 67-64 back on Jan. 27.
“They know us, we know them. It’s gonna be great. Once you get down to the state tournament everybody’s got that mentality where there’s no tomorrow. We’ll be prepped, we’ll be ready. I’m excited about it and the good thing is, we’ve already experienced that. So we’re going in there and we already know that mentality of how we have to approach the state tournament so I think that will definitely help us out,” Holthaus said.
Ryle’s season comes to close at 24-9, losing in the region championship for the second straight year. They’ll lose five seniors, Johnson, Holtman, Emerson Fong, Anna Gregory and Meredith Snider.
Holtman is headed to play at the University of Cincinnati while Johnson is headed to Division II North Greenville. Holtman, Johnson and Snider were part of the 2019 state championship team.
They’ll return three starters, Quinn Eubank, Sarah Baker and Jaelyn Jones. Eubank finished the night with 10 points and eight rebounds, Baker with six points and four rebounds, Jones adding two points.
RYLE — 13-8-9-12 — 42
COOPER — 13-12-9-14 — 48
Ryle (42) — Johnson 16, Eubank 10, Holtman 8, Baker 6, Jones 2
Cooper (48) — L. Freihofer 15, K. Freihofer 10, Palmer 8, Lind 7, Alexander 5, Noel 3