UHRICHSVILLE - For the first time in more than three decades the Bridgeport girls' basketball team is headed to the district tournament.
The state-ranked Bulldogs used a tenacious defensive effort and hit their free throws down the stretch in notching a 46-36 triumph against Frontier (19-5) in a Division IV lower-bracket sectional final Thursday night inside Claymont High School.
With its 23rd victory in 24 starts, Rob Zitzelsberger's squad not only advances to New Philadelphia High School at 8 p.m. next Thursday and a district semifinal date with state-ranked Hiland (20-4), which manhandled Caldwell, 65-16, in last night's second game in Tuscarawas County, but it also equaled the school record for most victories in a single season set in the early 1980s.
Photo by KIM NORTH
Bridgeport’s Nicole Smolenak (33) drives to the basket Thursday night against Frontier.
The victory also avenges the lone blemish on Bridgeport's schedule, a 46-44 setback in the Wheeling Hospital OVAC Class 2A championship game nearly two weeks ago.
"Our intensity was there," Zitzelsberger said. "We took the ball to the basket and made them play defense against us. In the OVAC game, we just stood around. The girls watched that tape and knew what they had to do."
As for the revenge factor?
"We don't look at it as revenge," Zitzelsberger admitted. "We just look at it as coming out and playing Bridgeport basketball. We did that against a very good team.''
Bridgeport, which was ranked sixth in the final Associated Press poll, roared out to a 9-2 lead only to watch the Cougars claw their way back and lead 13-11 at the first buzzer.
The Bulldogs led 24-19 at the half and extended the margin to seven, 28-21, early in the third quarter when Nicole Smolenak buried a 3-pointer and Caitlyn Kroll added a free throw.
Frontier, which finished with 21 turnovers, reeled off seven of the final eight points to trail, 29-28, with eight minutes remaining.
That's when Bridgeport put on a free-throw shooting clinic. A 75-percent team from the line, the Bulldogs had made half of their previous 14 attempts in the game, including a 3-for-10 during the two middle periods. However, they tickled the twine on 11 of 14 tries to pull away.
"Why were missing them, I don't know," Zitzelsberger said. "It might be nerves, but we made them down the stretch and that's when it counts."
Senior Maclaine Murad nailed five of the freebies, while Smolenak added four and Kroll two. Bridgeport was 18 of 28 overall, with Kroll making half of them on 12 tries.
"Give Bridgeport credit," Frontier coach Scott Murphy said. "We knew that one of the keys coming in was to take care of the basketball and, obviously, with 21 turnovers we didn't do that.
"They put some pressure on us early and got us uncomfortable, but then give us credit for coming back like we did.''
Kroll and Smolenak evenly divided 26 points, with Murad one back with a dozen.
Kroll also pulled down 10 of Bridgeport's 26 rebounds, while also charting four steals, two assists and a pair of blocked shots. Smolenak added four steals, a trio of boards and three assists, while Murad wiped the glass clean seven times.
Kelsea Daugherty had a double-double for Frontier with 14 points and a like number of rebounds. Lexi Brookover finished with 13 points.