A pivotal SOC II girls basketball contest on Monday night pitted the Minford Lady Falcons against the South Webster Lady Jeeps.
Minford looked mighty impressive throughout, relying on hot shooting to propel their way ahead to a 61-46 win.
The game had an emotional start before the teams warmed up, as the entire roster for both schools met at midcourt and locked hands to say a prayer.
Mark Watters, who has three daughters on the Minford team (Marissa, Makenzie and Makayla) was hospitalized with a brain aneurysm at St. Mary’s Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia prior to the game.
Fans, players, and coaches alike bowed their heads in unity to say some words on Mark’s behalf, as South Webster head coach Kristie Johnson led the prayer.
As the game got underway, it was apparent that the Falcons had a little extra motivation and it showed throughout the contest.
Sophomore Hannah Tolle began the scoring for Minford with a quick basket, showing she was ready to play on the big stage.
“Hannah had a really good first quarter for us offensively and defensively,” Falcons head coach Scott Caudill said. “She was hitting the boards, and I know you can’t judge it by minutes but Hannah actually had one of her better games tonight.”
Tolle would get in to early foul trouble, limiting her minutes throughout. She was still able to make her presence felt when she was out on the floor.
Both teams approached the game very physically, and foul trouble loomed over the heads of each school early on.
“I’m going to have many battle bruises from that,” Minford senior Marissa Risner said. “It’s normally pretty physical, but tonight was a little extra.”
The Jeeps got their first basket from Madison Cook, who sank a free throw with 6:46 to play in the first to make the count 2-1.
Then, Risner got it going in what was a night to remember for the senior.
Risner sank a triple on the next possession, and would score a game high 26 points with seven made three-pointers.
For Risner, the performance came as a bit of a surprise.
“I had no idea,” Risner said. “I was actually prepared to get guarded the whole time and not even get a shot off.”
Because the Falcons have so many options on the court with their starters, Coach Johnson was forced to pick who they defended closely on the floor.
“They’ve got so many weapons,” Johnson said. “We decided that we were going to leave Risner and play off her to help cover Daniels on the drive and cover Blankenship on the lob. Risner came out and did an awesome job for them.”
“We knew if we took the help out that Daniels was going to be able to drive like crazy and lob to Blankenship. We felt like the help had to come from the backside, and they did a nice job of putting Risner on the backside so that she was open to get those threes.”
The three on the second possession would be Risner’s only three-pointer of the corner, but she would score seven total points in the period before it was over on two free throws and a layup from a steal.
Fellow senior Erin Daniels came to play as well in the opening quarter, scoring two baskets on back-to-back possessions towards the end of the first to give her Minford squad a 13-8 advantage after one.
Daniels racked up 19 points in the contest.
In the second quarter, Risner began to catch fire on the floor. The senior would tally three made three-pointers in the second, and had 16 points at the break.
“I try to be confident, because I usually don’t have the opportunity to shoot,” Risner said. “A lot of people guard me all the time.”
Cook kept South Webster as close as possible with six points of her own in the quarter, but her Jeeps trailed 35-20 at the half. Overall, Cook would finish with 16 points.
“We knew she could hurt us,” Caudill said on Cook. “She’s got a very quick release, and you’ve got to get out on her. When she’s hot, she gets really hot, and she got hot there for a second and hurt us quite a bit.”
Though they had a big deficit to overcome, South Webster kept at it in the final two quarters.
“I think in the second half we played right with them point for point,” Johnson said. “That first half killed us, and I’ll analyze that and look and see what we can do different to maybe keep that from happening next time.”
“I feel like our defense was about as good as it could be with the clientele we have. We’ll have to make some adjustments and look at what we could do differently to speed them up a little bit.”
For the Jeeps, Ellie Jo Johnson was big in the second half with 12 points. Johnson posted 18 in the contest, going a perfect 14 for 14 from the free throw line.
“Ellie Jo Johnson, a division one basketball player, she’s a great basketball player,” Caudill said. “We knew she was going to get her points. We knew how much she drives, and she’s very difficult to guard.”
Risner kept her stroke going for her in the third quarter, hitting a three on the opening possession for Minford and another trey with 1:51 remaining to add to the lead for the Falcons.
“She’s just a special player,” Caudill said. “A senior, and it was just a great night for her … when she’s shooting the ball, we’re a difficult matchup for anybody.”
Caitlyn Puckett was also impressive in the third, battling for rebounds and scoring four points. Following up Risner’s second three of the quarter, Puckett snatched a loose ball and went coast to coast for a layup to stretch the lead to 50-31 with 1:14 to play in the period.
“We ask so much from her defensively,” Caudill said. “It probably takes away from some of her offense, but we always have her on the best player every night and we expect her to do a lot of rebounding and ballhandling for us.”
The final quarter showcased the heart of the South Webster squad, who refused to go down without swinging.
In the fourth, it was again the Cook and Johnson show for the Lady Jeeps as the two tried to will their team back into the battle.
“They’re just consistently our players, and they just come every night,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to find that third scorer, and somebody else that can get some points for us and hit some shots to take a little bit of pressure off of them.”
South Webster would pull within 12, but the deficit was just too much as the Falcons found themselves victorious, 61-46.
It was a special night for Minford, who has all the tools to make a tourney run.
“We’ve got the role players, and that’s what makes us a special team,” Caudill said. “Erin Daniels leads us in the ballhandling, Caitlyn Puckett battles inside, Ashley Blankenship is a 6-foot-3 matchup … I think this was probably our best game overall.”
“I think it just came down to making shots. Our girls came out and were prepared, they were pumped up, and they took the right shots. They were looking to get Marissa the ball, and I was really proud of our kids for playing team ball.”
For players like Risner, this is the last shot to make something special. Risner has enjoyed the start to this year thus far, as her Falcons are 8-0 overall.
“As a senior, this is a dream come true,” Risner said. “This is something we’ve been waiting for forever.”
Minford will look to remain unbeaten in the league on Thursday against Northwest.
“Dave Frantz out there does a really nice job with those kids and has a lot of fun,” Caudill said about the Lady Mohawks. “We’ve got to get back tomorrow and prepare, because there’s still some things we’d like to get better at.”
The Jeeps (7-3, 5-2) aren’t out by any means, but will be looking for some help for Cook and Johnson later in the season.
“We’ve got to find a third scorer,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be able to use Madi and Jo in that way, but still have someone that can step up and hit an outside shot when Jo drives or Madi kicks it back out.”
“That’s something we’ve got to refocus on, and we’ve got to look at our lineup and see what we can do to make that happen and get us another scorer. That may be partly my fault, I’ll have to reevaluate and see how we can find another scorer and another way to take the pressure off those two.”
Still, as a smaller school, Johnson sees a big advantage in playing teams like the Falcons.
“What an advantage we have being a Division IV team, and playing teams like that in our regular schedule twice a year,” Johnson said. “It’s only going to make us better and help prepare us for tournament.”
South Webster will play Wheelersburg on Thursday.
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer