WHEELERSBURG — Physical games where the players can simply play is a fun form of basketball to watch.
If one needed proof of that, look no further than the thrilling SOC II matchup that took place on Thursday evening, when the Wheelersburg Pirates’ and the South Webster Jeeps’ girls basketball programs got together for a contest that featured two traditional, and current, SOC II powers.
And in a game that was played to a two possession or less margin over the majority of the way, it was South Webster that emerged out of the dust with the win, as Ellie Jo Johnson’s 23 points, gritty defensive efforts from Madison Cook and Rose Stephens, and the emergence of Kaylee Hadinger as a scoring threat allowed the Lady Jeeps — who won by seven points (50-43) during the initial meeting — to win by seven points again, as South Webster took home a 54-47 victory over Wheelersburg, who received equally gritty efforts from Ellie Ruby among others, on Thursday evening in Wheelersburg.
For Kristie Johnson, there definitely aren’t many things sweeter than sweeping a season series against a conference opponent and fellow rival.
“We’ve got to continue to take care of business, and we’ve got to come and be ready to play every night,” Johnson said. “Wheelersburg’s so good and so quick. I thought that they did a very nice job of trying to contain Ellie Jo and Maddie. They double-teamed, triple-teamed, and did whatever they needed to do to try and stop them. Our team just stepped up tonight and hit some big shots. I’m just proud of the effort. That was something that we wanted to do before Christmas Break. I’m very pleased. It’s hard to come to Wheelersburg and win. Kudos to them. They are a great team. I’m very thrilled.”
As for Dusty Spradlin, it was hard to find much fault with the loss, especially considering how the Lady Pirates matched the Lady Jeeps in the energy column.
“It’s a tough matchup for us,” Spradlin said. “I thought that our kids worked hard. They did everything that we asked of them. I told them after the game, ‘We’ve got to somehow find a way to be a little better offensively.’ However, at the same time, we guard well. They’ve got some size and make everything tough.”
From the outset, the stars came to play as the Ellie’s found themselves matching each other point-for-point early on, with Ellie Jo Johnson scoring each of South Webster’s first seven points and Ellie Ruby matching her by using her extreme quickness to open up opportunities for herself in transition.
In addition to their early work on the offensive end of the floor, the pair found themselves battling each other early, and often. Both set the tone with their fierce play, with Ruby and Johnson each converging on the floor for loose balls. In one loose ball occurrence near the end of the first half, Ruby had her shoulder painfully popped out of place in the resulting scrum — and then popped it back in.
“Ellie played really hard,” Spradlin said. “I know she opened with five straight points for us and shot the ball really well this morning in shootaround. She plays so hard. She’s all over the floor. She’s battling Ellie Jo Johnson, and there’s a big size disadvantage there. She’s giving up not just the size, but also, the strength, but she’s a gamer, and that’s the way she’s been her whole career. She plays the game with no fear, and she plays the game at an incredible pace.”
Even though Wheelersburg’s scrappiness was certainly a challenge for South Webster, the production of Madison Cook and Baylee Cox around Johnson in the first frame proved to be huge. Ultimately, the pair ended up scoring each of the Lady Jeeps’ final eight tallies in the first quarter, with the pair coming on back-to-back treys to allow South Webster to take a 15-10 lead after the opening quarter.
In the second quarter of action, the Lady Pirates received an excellent effort from freshman guard Kaylee Darnell, who scored the first four points of the fame for Wheelersburg en route to cutting the margin to a 16-14 tally. Then, after South Webster pushed the lead back out to a five-point margin (20-15), the Lady Pirates, again, cut into the Lady Jeeps’ lead as an Abbie Kallner bucket from the middle of the lane cut the deficit to 25-22 with less than two minutes to go.
But as the entire Wheelersburg unit did a great job to scrap and fight its way back, South Webster did an equally good job stepping up as Hadinger, Stephens, and Avery Zempter all stepped up with big efforts in the frame. The trio ultimately combined for nine of the Lady Jeeps’ final 12 tallies at halftime — with Stephens holding Kallner to just four points at halftime to boot — en route to keeping a two-possession advantage, 28-24, by the halftime break.
“Rose Stephens did a heck of a job on (Abbie) Kallner,” Johnson said. “I am so proud of her and her defensive ability. She hit those two big free throws at the end as a sophomore, and is just really coming along. I’m extremely proud of her. Hadi stepped in and hit some big shots for us. I’m just very pleased.”
In the third frame, the trio of Darnell, Kallner, and Ruby, who combined for 30 of Wheelersburg’s 47 points, continued to provide a spark with their defense as the grittiness of the backcourt forced South Webster to settle for a seven-point quarter. Cook’s toughness inside, however, made the going equally difficult for the Lady Pirates as the Lady Jeeps held Wheelersburg to a six-point third frame en route to increasing its lead to 35-30 by the end of the frame.
“We needed to shoot the ball better, and we needed the game to be at more of an up-and-down pace,” Spradlin said. “The effort was great. We just have to keep working and try to get better offensively. We played two freshmen a lot (on Thursday evening). They’re growing up right before our eyes, and they’ve got to continue to grow up, because we’ve got a lot of tough games ahead.”
Cook’s presence, however, had a lot to do with that. The 6-0 forward, who posted a double-double with 13 rebounds and 11 points, was as much crafty as she was physical, using excellent boxout techniques to post a game-high in the former category.
“What South Webster does better than anybody else is their ability to rebound,” Spradlin said. “They don’t give people very many second-chances. “Tonight, they just really exploited the mismatches. Between Maddie Cook and Ellie Jo Johnson, there wasn’t much we could do once those girls got the ball where they wanted to in the low post. There’s just not much we can do against that. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re physical, and they know how to use their size to their advantage. When you’re not making shots, it’s tough, and we struggled to score. I thought that our kids hung in there and worked their tails off. They just came up short. I’m really pleased with the way that they played. I’m proud of the effort.
“Maddie does a phenomenal job,” Johnson said. “She is so strong. She gets good low-post position, and it’s hard to rebound, even if it’s a person that’s taller than her, because she is so strong and you can’t really push her around. I’m very, very proud of all of them.”
“Maddie’s our best rebounder,” Ellie Jo said. “She’s good at watching and flying to the basketball while also knowing where it’s going to come off. She’s smart.”
Wheelersburg, however, certainly put out a good effort in trying to overcome the size disadvantage. After a Leann Spradlin three-ball to begin the fourth quarter, South Webster, behind the ability of their senior playmaker in Johnson, pushed the lead out to a 10-point cushion — 43-33, the largest lead of the game — thanks to a six-point run from the Morehead State signee. However, Spradlin and Kallner responded right back by nailing back-to-back threes in an 8-2 spurt that cut the lead back down to four, 45-41, with 2:20 to play in the game.
“We’re still looking to develop some of these kids,” Spradlin said. “I like where we’re going, we’ve just got to make sure that we continue to keep working, because we’re only going to get better. These games are valuable experience for later, because that felt like a tournament game. The way that they called the game, let the girls play, and be physical, is what happens in tournament games. The atmosphere was great.”
But despite Wheelersburg’s clever efforts to keep from fouling Johnson — which worked initially as a pair of baskets and a 3-of-6 mark at the line from South Webster at the line allowed the Lady Pirates to cut the gap to 50-47 with 29 seconds remaining — the play of South Webster was too much to overcome.
On an inbound play, Johnson, who ran up to catch the basketball, took full advantage of Wheelersburg’s strategy — by sailing past two Lady Pirates in taking the ball right to the rack with less than 25 seconds to play. Stephens’ steal on the very next defensive possession, and two free throws from the latter, ultimately sealed the deal as Johnson’s 10 fourth-quarter points helped to seal the deal. The 6-1 point-forward ultimately finished with a team-high 23 points to go along with seven rebounds, seven assists, and four steals in the contest.
“Ellie Jo realized that she had to come back and get the ball, especially at the end when they were fouling,” Johnson said. “Wheelersburg did a really nice job of not fouling her and Maddie, and swarming to everybody else. We just said, ‘It’s got to be in your hands as much as possible. You hold it for four seconds, dribble for four seconds, and hold it for four seconds. That’s 12 seconds off of the clock, because they’re not fouling you, they’re fouling other people.’ They did a nice job.”
With the victory, South Webster improved to a strong 8-3 overall mark while also advancing to 6-2 overall in SOC II action with the road win. The Lady Jeeps will head to the road next Thursday to take on Vinton County in a nonconference bout.
“Hopefully, we’ll just continue to get better,” Spradlin said. “I told them that eventually, we’re going to make some stops. We’re going to shoot the ball better. I like where we’re headed. It’s a little frustrating because it’s a rivalry game. We had won six games in a row after we dropped the first two, and we wanted to keep the roll going. There’s always tomorrow, however, and we’ll get in there, work tomorrow and Saturday, try to get better, and see if we can’t start another streak. There’s lots of games still to play. I’m proud of the girls.”
As for Wheelersburg, the Lady Pirates are certainly still in good shape, with the Pirates’ overall record standing at 6-3 and 5-3 overall in SOC II play. Wheelersburg will host Nelsonville-York next Thursday in what is expected to be a strong nonconference clash.
“I love where we at right now, and I’m really pleased with the work that the team is putting in,” Johnson said. “This was a big game for us. Playing ‘Burg at ‘Burg, and coming out with a win in a tournament-like atmosphere, is no easy task. We’ve still got some work to do to get better, but I know that the girls have embraced and will continue to embrace that as we go forward on a game-by-game basis.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT