Unbeaten Bulldogs Eliminate Knights

BRIDGEPORT – Wheeling Central gave state-ranked and undefeated Bridgeport all it wanted Thursday night in a Wheeling Hospital OVAC Girls’ Basketball Championship Class 2A semifinal, but it wasn’t enough for fourth-seeded Maroon Knights (9-7) .

The top-seeded Bulldogs (20-0) overcame a 37-35 deficit with five minutes left before a packed house inside the John J. Havlicek Gymnasium to pull out a 50-43 victory on Frank Baxter Court.

With the come-from-behind victory, Bridgeport, which was ranked third in the latest Associated Press Division IV state poll, advances to the 2A championship game Saturday night against No. 3 seed Frontier. The game tips off at 8 inside the Health and Physical Education Building on the campus of Ohio University Eastern.

“We made some mistakes down the stretch and that’s kind of what we’ve done all year,” veteran Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz said. “We’re kind of a young team, but I thought we gave them (Bridgeport) everything we had. We had the lead in the fourth quarter, but we had a couple of key turnovers and a couple of forced shots there at the end.”

With her team on the short end of the 37-35 count, Bridgeport senior Nicole Smolenak took over. The 5-foot-3 point guard dialed long distance twice near the midway point of the third quarter to give the Bulldogs a 41-37 advantage that they never relinquished.

“I never thought it would be easy,” Bridgeport coach Rob Zitzelsberger said. “Like I said before, Wheeling Central has quality coaches and they had four extra days to prepare for us. We knew it would be a game like this.”

Caitlyn Kroll tallied four points to give Bridgeport a 45-42 lead with 1:45 remaining, and after a Maroon Knights miss, Smolenak was fouled. A nearly 90-percent shooter from the free-throw line, she tickled the twine twice for a 47-42 advantage with 1:16 left.

Wheeling Central’s Mackenzie Michaels hit the backend of a two-shot foul at the 1:04 mark to make it 47-43, and the visitors got the ball back seconds later on a turnover. However, a 3-point attempt was off the mark.

Bridgeport’s Briana Massey converted a conventional three-point play for the final margin of victory.

“Down the stretch we did what we had to do,” Zitzelsberger said. “Nicole hit two big 3s and we knocked our foul shots down.”

Smolenak led all scorers and rebounders 19 and 11, respetively. Maclaine Murad added 10 points and six boards and is three points shy of 1,000 for her career. Kroll, who was saddled with two fouls early in the first quarter, finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. Massey added nine points and a like number of boards.

Cate Calissie paced the Maroon Knights with 15 points. Lindsey Baker added 10. Regan Blaha had seven points and seven rebounds.