WEST PORTSMOUTH — It might have taken a month’s time, but the inside track to the Southern Ohio Conference Division II girls basketball championship belongs once again to the West Lady Senators.
And, for those Lady Senators —should they win out in the SOC II — they will capture their first conference championship in the sport.
That’s because they first HAD to complete the season sweep of the four-time reigning league winner Wheelersburg —which has actually won seven of the last eight SOC II titles.
The Lady Senators, stunned at Waverly exactly one week after snapping the Lady Pirates’ 62-game league winning streak in December, regained their footing for the division finish line —and seized the outright league lead following Thursday’s 55-46 wire-to-wire win at The Rock, to in fact sweep those same Lady Pirates.
That’s correct, West went from opening tip to final buzzer and never trailed on Thursday —scoring the opening six points, erupting for a 16-5 lead following the opening quarter, and withstanding Wheelersburg’s comeback attempts all throughout and at almost every turn.
The Lady Pirates twice got to within a single second-stanza possession (17-15 and 19-17), did the same thing once more in the third frame for a 32-30 deficit —and was within four points at 48-44 with a mere 93 seconds to go.
But the Lady Senators, answering every run the Lady Pirates pillaged them with, sank 7-of-10 free throws over that same span and sealed it —as a Lexie Rucker baseline jump shot was Wheelersburg’s only make in that same span.
In front of a full house at The Rock, the Lady Senators celebrated one of the biggest triumphs in program history —and definitely their most important win since that double-digit Dec. 8 outcome at Wheelersburg.
West raised its records to 16-1 and an SOC II-frontrunning 12-1 —with Waverly, a 55-49 victor five weeks ago and which West hosts on Thursday (Jan. 26) for that second season meeting, representing the only defeat.
The ladies of the West side have never won a girls basketball league title —but with only improving Valley, Waverly, and at third-place Minford (10-3 SOC II) remaining — the Lady Senators surely see that crown coming their way at the present.
West first-year head coach Larry Howell said his athletic, experienced, talented and senior-laden Lady Senators have been waiting for this opportunity —after coming so close against the powerhouse Lady Pirates the past two years at The Rock.
“We’re senior-heavy, we’re all experienced, and this group won 18 games last year. They wanted it, and they executed. The girls were ready for this, they probably just wanted me to shut up and let them play,” said Howell, with a slight laugh. “They know Wheelersburg really well, but we’ve defended them well.”
The Lady Senators sure did defend with the opening canto — a 16-5 output that perhaps was shocking to most, given what the Lady Pirates can do offensively when they are making their shots.
With Wheelersburg’s perimeter-oriented attack, shooting well —especially behind the three-point arc —is paramount to its success.
But the Lady Senators scored the first six points in a matter of two-and-a-half minutes, and it wasn’t until 10 seconds later that Makenna Walker canned a three-pointer —cutting West’s lead in half.
A Macee Eaton basket got the Lady Pirates to within 6-5 at the 3:53 mark of the first, but West went on a 10-0 run over the final two minutes and 21 seconds —with Lexi Deaver drilling a three-point goal in the process.
More on the West offense shortly, but its defense stymied the Lady Pirates to only 2-of-14 first-quarter shooting.
One of the Lady Pirates’ prime scorers, the 5-9 senior Rucker, didn’t — until her three fourth-quarter field goals.
“That first quarter just allowed our kids to relax. We wanted to play with the lead and make them chase us,” said Howell. “They understand that defense is going to win games and we’ll make shots when we need to. And rebounding tonight. I think we gave up 20 offensive rebounds the first time we played them. But I guarantee we didn’t do that this time. If they were going to get a shot, it would have to be going to the basket, but not a catch-and-shoot three. I thought we did a good job of that and we wanted to keep Rucker in front of us. Kids just executed the gameplan. We were locked in defensively pretty much the entire game.”
Wheelersburg went on to actually outscore the Lady Senators 41-39 the remainder of the way, but it couldn’t quite overcome such a sluggish start.
“Big game, great atmosphere, good defense and their length. Obviously, we wanted to start way better,” said Wheelersburg veteran coach Dusty Spradlin. “We started giving up baskets in transition and we didn’t make shots early, and maybe we started pressing a little harder. Like we were trying to answer some of their made shots so quickly. They are so good, especially in transition. They have multiple kids who can handle the ball, they get defensive rebounds, and are able to get out and just go.”
Nor could the Lady Pirates ever gain the lead, for West answered each ‘Burg charge with one of its own.
Seven unanswered Senator markers over a 1:33 span made it 26-17 at the 32-second mark of the second period, and a 7-2 run over the final 2:20 of the third made it 37-32.
Eaton split a pair of fourth-quarter free throws for a 39-33 deficit, but another seven straight Senator counters —including winged trifectas from seniors Deaver and Charlie Jo Howard —kicked West’s lead to its largest (46-33) with four-and-a-half minutes left.
Deaver dropped in 14 points on two deuces and two treys, along with 4-of-6 fourth-quarter foul shots.
Howard had a first-quarter two to make it 8-0, then meshed 3-of-4 freebies following her three.
West junior point guard Emma Sayre scored 13 points —on five buckets through the opening three periods, prior to three made fourth-quarter foul shots.
Maelynn Howell, the five-foot and 10-inch senior standout, had a game-high 18 points to pace West —with those five twos, a second-quarter triple, and 5-of-6 free throws all occurring through the first three quarters.
“We felt with the lead, it was our game, especially since we’ve been shooting free throws pretty well, as long as we didn’t turn the ball over,” said Coach Howell.
Howell had nine rebounds for a near double-double, as Coach Howell hailed his guards’ play —and that of Howell being able to play inside-out.
“We felt like our strength was our guards out top, and if we could get them away from the basket, we could penetrate to the basket. They had a hard time staying in front of Emma (Sayre) and Lexi (Deaver) and Charlie Jo (Howard). And those three hit some timely shots. Then Maelynn (Howell) is just a matchup problem. She protects our rim for us, but rebounding the basketball and running the floor, she is just a great player,” said the coach. “Every time they made a run, we fought back and answered every time. That’s what these kids do. We put challenges in front of them, and they just answer the bell.”
West did have to answer the fourth-quarter ‘Burg call — as Annie Coriell’s three-ball and 2-of-2 free throws and back-to-back baskets by Rucker and another by Madison Whittaker made it 48-44.
Spradlin said if only his Lady Pirates could have taken the lead, what might have been.
Yet, West went 10-of-14 for fourth-quarter charity tosses —part of 15-of-22 for the game.
“Some of those shots, we make on different days that we unfortunately didn’t today. Then again, some of it is just execution,” he said. “Even after being down 16-5, we still felt we were right there. But West made shots, did enough good things to win. When they got inside and outside, they are just a tough matchup. They just are. Emma Sayre and Maelynn Howell really controlled things, and then Deaver and Howard hit big shots. You have to pick your poison.”
Walker, with three first-half threes and two third-quarter twos, and Whittaker —with two treys and 5-of-6 free throws in the middle two quarters prior to her fourth-quarter basket —wound up with 13 points apiece.
Although seven Lady Pirates scored, Rucker’s half-dozen was the next highest total.
Wheelersburg dipped to 14-2 with the loss, and to 10-2 in the SOC II.
Needless to say for the conference race, but the Lady Pirates need to win out —and get some help as the regular season heads for the stretch.
“I told the girls it’s not a lack of effort. But we have to find ways to execute better and limit some of those dead periods offensively,” said Spradlin. “We just have to keep making steps and try to get better, and you just never know what might happen.”
What happened on Thursday was West regaining at least an inside track towards its first SOC II championship in school history.
“We’ll enjoy this tonight, but we have to finish the job. One game at a time and one practice at a time. We have to keep getting better. When we beat Wheelersburg the first time, we were getting patted on the back. But then we went to Waverly, and we got snakebit there. Valley is playing a lot better, we have Waverly here, and we have a tough game at Minford still left. So it’s definitely not over,” said Coach Howell. “That said, these girls are locked in right now, and our job right now as coaches is to keep them focused and hungry.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 5 15 12 14 —46
West 16 10 11 18— 55
WHEELERSBURG 46 (14-2, 10-2 SOC II)
Mia Vastine 1 0-1 2, Madison Whittaker 3 5-6 13, Annie Coriell 1 2-2 5, Keira Kennard 0 0-2 0, Jocelyn Tilley 1 0-0 2, Jaylin Prather 0 0-0 0, Makenna Walker 5 0-0 13, Lexie Rucker 3 0-0 6, Macee Eaton 2 1-2 5; TOTALS 16 8-13 46; Three-point field goals: 6 (Makenna Walker 3, Madison Whittaker 2, Annie Coriell 1)
WEST 55 (16-1, 12-1 SOC II)
Maelynn Howell 6 5-6 18, Elisha Andre 0 0-0 0, Sydney McDermott 1 0-0 2, Kate Rollins 0 0-0 0, Emma Sayre 5 3-6 13, Lexi Deaver 4 4-6 14, Charlie Jo Howard 2 3-4 8; TOTALS 18 15-22 55; Three-point field goals: 4 (Lexi Deaver 2, Maelynn Howell and Charlie Jo Howard 1 apiece)