ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The last time the Wheeling Central and Shadyside girls' basketball teams squared off, Coach Tina Yates' usually hot-shooting Tigers bombed in eight 3-pointers and raced out to a 32-5 lead during the first quarter before hanging on at the end for an eight-point triumph.
Only two words were needed to explain how the Maroon Knights prevented Shadyside from reaching the 32-point mark until 9 seconds remained in the fourth quarter of Saturday afternoon's Wheeling Hospital OVAC Class 2A championship game played on the Ohio University Eastern campus - rebounding and defense.
Clearly those were the keys to Wheeling Central's 37-34 victory that ended Shadyside's one-year run as conference champions and also snapped the Tigers' 13-game winning streak.
Wheeling Central’s Julie Palmer reaches for a rebound during the Class 2A championship game Saturday afternoon at Ohio University Eastern.
Photo by Paul Krajnyak
Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz had some ready answers when questioned about his team's success in finally getting the best of the Tigers (17-3), who had swept the season series against the Maroon Knights the past three years.
''What went right this time was our defense," a pleased Kurtz said. ''We knew coming in that we had to shut down (Karli) Bonar and (Hayley) Holenka. We just wanted to get out early with the lead and make them play from behind because if they get ahead of you, they are a different team.''
That part of Central's game plan also worked to perfection. Shadyside led just once the entire afternoon, seizing a 5-4 lead after one of the rare occasions when Bonar got enough daylight to nail a 3-pointer. Cassie Sorge's baseline drive put the Maroon Knights back in front and the game was tied just once the rest of the way - 23-23 after Toni Andes' three-point play nearly 3 minutes into the fourth quarter.
Emily Bucon, Central's leading scorer with 13 points, then stroked in a 3-pointer from the left wing, followed by Colleen McCormick's stickback shot for a 28-23 Knights advantage with 3:29 left in the game.
Although Central had several misses at the foul line down the stretch, Bucon was the exception, swishing six foul shots in a row. Overall, the junior standout finished with a perfect 8-for-8 at the free-throw line.
Bonar and Holenka entered the OVAC title contest with 18-point scoring averages and they had combined for 11 trifectas in that most recent matchup against the Maroon Knights. Saturday, they managed only three 3-pointers, all by Bonar, who scored 11 points while Holenka was limited to three points before fouling out late in the game.
The Maroon Knights also did a terrific job rebounding the basketball, limiting Shadyside to one shot on nearly every first-half possession although the final statistics had both teams with 26 total rebounds.
''We didn't do a good job of boxing out the last couple of minutes but, overall, I was really proud of our effort on the boards,'' Kurtz said.
McCormick, Central's other double-figure scorer with 12 points, was almost a one-girl window cleaner underneath the glass, pulling down seven of her game-high 13 rebounds on the defensive end of the floor. Shadyside's top rebounder was Kristen Fijalkowski, who had nine rebounds and eight points.
''We started out flat-footed and not playing with a lot of intensity," a disappointed Yates said as Shadyside scored 11 points in the first half on 4 of 20 shooting from the floor.
When asked about the Tigers' long possessions which saw them often take more than 30 seconds before attempting a shot, Yates said, ''We weren't moving on offense but their defense had a lot to do with it. They just shut us down."
The two biggest shots of the game were provided by Bri Robbins at the end of the half and Bucon's trey that gave Central the lead for keeps in the fourth quarter.
At the end of a second quarter that saw the Tigers score three points, Robbins buried her 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer extending Central's advantage to 19-11. It was the second game in a row for the senior guard to hit a critical buzzer beater. During Monday night's OVAC semifinal victory against River, Robbins' 3-pointer trimmed an 11-point deficit to eight and the Maroon Knights went on to dominate the second half against the Pilots
Shadyside, which's two previous losses this season were against Zanesville Rosecrans and Wheeling Park, made a run in the third quarter also thanks largely to its defense which limited Central to two points.
Bonar drained her third and final 3-pointer of the game, followed by two-point baskets from Fijalkowski and Toni Andes as the Tigers rallied to within 19-18. The only points the remainder of the quarter came on a baseline hoop from Central's Julia Palmer and anther Fijalkowski hoop.
McCormick opened the final quarter with a stickback goal, restoring the three-point lead that was wiped out when Andes flashed across the lane to hit a runner. She also was fouled and cashed the free throw to knot the score at 23-23 with 6:29 to play.
Bucon got control of a long rebound, went up and dropped her 3-pointer into the twine to put the Knights in front 26-23. McCormick's rebound and stickback, followed by another Bucon goal from in close, pushed the lead out to 30-23, leaving the Tigers with too much of a hill to overcome.
Missed free throws by the Maroon Knights helped the defending champs get within 35-32 with 9 seconds remaining. Bucon then stepped back to the free-throw line and buried both shots to put the game out of reach just ahead of Kenzie Fielding's last-second basket.
The victory improved Central's record to 18-3 during a season which has seen the Maroon Knights defeat W.Va. Class AAA power Wheeling Park twice and achieve a victory against a Shadyside team that had advanced to Ohio's final four last season.
The Tigers' coach scoffed at a question about how difficult it was to beat a team for the third time in one season.
''We have been in that position before and were fortunate enough to come out on the positive side,'' Yates said. ''(Saturday) it just didn't happen. The only positive thing is that there is still life after this loss. Our girls will be focused and they'll come out ready to play in our sectional tournament next Thursday night.''