CHESAPEAKE — It may be cliche, but it is said often that defense wins championships.
And while the Wheelersburg girls basketball program may be out of the running for an SOC II Championship in 2018, its defensive effort on Monday evening against the Chesapeake Lady Panthers’ basketball program, if repeated, could very well put the Lady Pirates in the district championship conversation come late February .
Behind stingy defense up top from Ellie Ruby and down in the low post from Mallory Bergan, Wheelersburg jumped out to a 10-2 first-quarter lead and rode the strong performances of freshmen Kaylee Darnell and Ellie Kallner — who combined for 14 points in the first half — en route to taking a 22-14 halftime advantage. Then, when Chesapeake cut the lead to four points late in the fourth quarter, Leann Spradlin put the dagger in the hearts of the Lady Panthers by scoring eight straight Wheelersburg points as the Lady Pirates closed the game on a critical 14-6 run en route to a 45-34 victory in a nonconference road bout at Chesapeake High School on Monday evening.
For Dusty Spradlin, the efforts of his girls on the defensive end were of nothing less than the Grade A variety.
“There were a lot of good things that I saw throughout the game,” Spradlin said. “I told the girls, ‘We can even be better.’ Chesapeake scored 12 points in the second quarter, but naturally, you’re going to give up some points as you go. We struggled some offensively, but I felt like defensively, we had a really, really good night. All in all, I felt really good with how we played. When you get a road win like that, it’s hard to be unhappy with a positive result like that.”
In the opening quarter of play, Wheelersburg made Chesapeake’s life a living nightmare as the Lady Panthers couldn’t connect on a single shot during the first quarter. Natalee Hall’s free throws with 3:26 to play in the opening quarter proved to be the Lady Panthers’ only points in the frame, and Bergan, who proved to be an absolute thorn in Chesapeake’s side with her 6-0 frame and long wingspan, scored four points during a 6-0 spurt for Wheelersburg that had the Lady Pirates up by the 10-2 tally after a quarter of play.
“Mallory was really good early in the first quarter as far as rebounding the basketball was concerned,” Spradlin said. “She had some nice finishes on the offensive end and played strong inside.”
Even after Chesapeake’s Maddie Ward ultimately got the Lady Panthers’ first field goal just 21 seconds into the second quarter, which was followed by a second personal foul by Bergan in the backcourt moments later that forced the sophomore to the bench, Wheelersburg’s struggles to finish possessions offensively were solved, at least in the second frame, by Darnell and Ellie Kallner. Darnell got her patented jumper working early on for eight first-half points, while Kallner, who has served as a steady presence as a secondary ballhandler, nailed a pair of treys to allow Wheelersburg to begin the second quarter on a 12-4 run before Chesapeake ultimately closed the deficit down to 22-14 on a half-ending 6-0 run.
“Ellie and Kaylee have gotten a lot more comfortable,” Spradlin said. “Kaylee was very active in the first half. I would’ve liked to have seen us get her some more looks in the second half, but overall, I feel like both of the freshmen have really come on. They’ve gotten so comfortable. I love to see Ellie have confidence to shoot a three-pointer. If you talk to her, she’ll tell you that it’s not a strength that she considers to have. I just loved it. You have to play the game with no fear.”
In the third quarter of play, however, Chesapeake came out firing. Behind the play of Davis and Ward, the Lady Panthers ultimately went on a 6-2 run that cut the Wheelersburg advantage to 24-20 midway through the third quarter of action.
But on two consecutive possessions, Ruby’s defensive play — which was, as it has been all season long, terrific — undid Chesapeake’s hard work in cutting the deficit down to a two-possession margin. After forcing a turnover, Ruby ultimately found Abbie Kallner on the move for an and-one, then, after forcing a Chesapeake turnover, found space in the left corner and drilled a three-ball that ultimately increased Wheelersburg’s lead to as much as 30-20 before the Lady Pirates ultimately settled for a 30-23 lead heading into the fourth quarter of play.
“Ellie gets so many deflections, and tonight, she was doing it while guarding Chesapeake’s best player in (Allison) Hall who only had eight points,” Spradlin said. “She’s really good about using her body. Ellie runs the point for us and knocks down shots when we need them. Even when she’s not scoring, she impacts the game.”
Again, however, Chesapeake proved to be a tough out. As with the third quarter, the Lady Panthers limited Wheelersburg to two points early on in the frame, and used a Taylor Hicks three-pointer from the right wing to cut the Lady Pirates’ lead to a 32-28 tally.
But as Chesapeake made its push, Spradlin put her shot in the microwave at the right time. A friendly roll on a mid-range jumper with 4:39 to go was all the 5-9 forward needed, as the senior added a three-pointer from the right wing with 3:19 to play and a low-post bucket after cutting toward the glass with 2:39 to go to increase the Wheelersburg lead to 39-30. The trio of Ruby, Spradlin, and Abbie Kallner then closed out the affair by going 6-of-8 from the free throw stripe over the final two-and-a-half minutes of the affair to set the game’s final margin.
“Leann was frustrated early on in the game because she had some looks in the first three quarters that didn’t fall,” Spradlin said. “I told her, ‘All it takes is one. All it takes is one shot to go in.’ She got a nice roll on the first shot that she made, then all of the sudden, the next three shots that she attempted, she didn’t even have to think about the possibility of shooting it or not. She’s been around the program and she knows what we’re trying to do. It’s nice to see the kids that are in your program and have put in the work coming in and being that productive when we really needed it.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg improved to 9-4 overall on the season and earned its second nonconference victory in as many attempts against Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) competition. The Lady Pirates, who sit 7-4 overall in SOC II play, are scheduled to return to conference action with a home bout against Waverly on Thursday evening.
“Waverly presents challenges for us,” Spradlin said. “From what I’ve been told, they have a couple of players that are now eligible after having to sit out the first part of the season, so it will be a different team than the one that we played at their place. They’ve played South Webster really well and they beat Valley last Thursday, so we’re going to have to defend, make sure that we guard the ball, and make sure that we get out on those shooters. They’ve got some kids that can shoot and they’ve also got some kids that can get to the basket, so for us, it will have to start with our effort defensively. Taking care of the basketball and getting good shots will also be vital, as well.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT