IRONTON — To emerge victorious against a team that one hasn’t actually played against before, two things are a must: one, the said team in question must study the opponent — from the schedule and the overall numbers all the way to the gamefilm — in a steadfast manner, and two, the attitude to prevail must be there.
While there was some concern in the second category, Scott Caudill knew that his Minford Falcons’ girls basketball program was in good shape when his star player, Erin Daniels, started signing along and dancing to the classic 1969 single ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond before the beginning of the second half.
“When I come out of here at halftime and hear ‘Sweet Caroline’ playing, and I see Erin singing and dancing, I knew that we were going to be fine,” Caudill said. “I knew that our attitude was going to be fine.”
And boy, was he ever right.
After watching a 19-14 first-quarter lead turn into a 35-29 halftime deficit behind a 21-point second quarter from the West Carter Comets’ girls basketball program, Minford completely turned the tables around with a 13-5 third-quarter run, then added an 11-2 spurt into the mix to put a hard-fought battle against West Carter away as the Falcons defeated the Comets, 65-55, on Saturday afternoon as part of the Tackett’s Body Shop Classic at Ironton High School.
But while the offense certainly came fast and furious at different points in the contest — as evidenced by the contest’s nine three pointers and strong individual play from several different hands — it was Minford’s defense that won out against one of the stronger teams that one will find around the Tri-State Area as far as sharing the basketball is concerned.
“West Carter’s a phenomenal basketball team with a lot of good basketball players,” Caudill said. “They played that dribble drive, and we were ready to switch off. The girls did a phenomenal job switching defensively.”
After quickly establishing a 4-0 lead following a pair of baskets from Daniels, West Carter, after a timeout from head coach Aaron Rayburn, quickly responded with five straight points behind baskets from Kallie Burchett and Ragan Adkins along with a free throw from Allie Stone, allowed the Lady Comets to take a 5-4 advantage early in the going.
But in a flash, Minford changed the outlook of the first quarter by simply making the extra pass. Behind back-to-back treys from Marissa Risner, along with a third three-pointer from Maddie Slusher, the Lady Falcons used an 11-3 run to take a 15-8 lead, ultimately settling for a 19-14 cushion after a quarter of action.
The second quarter, however, proved to be a different story. Behind a 1-2-2 press that Rayburn and his staff employed three-quarters of the way down the floor, the Lady Comets were able to get out in transition, which opened up opportunities for Madison Hanshaw — who knocked down a three-pointer — and impressive freshman talent Jascie Greene, who obtained four points off of low-post opportunities, en route to going on a 14-5 push of its own. West Carter ultimately took a 35-29 halftime lead as Minford’s offense, which sputtered to 10 points in the second quarter, was stymied in part by the 1-2-2.
However, there was a larger issue at play than just the offensive and defensive sets in question.
“There was just one thing that we had to change in the locker room at halftime,” Caudill said. “We came out in the first quarter hard-charging, playing the right way, playing disciplined, and making that extra pass. Then, when they went to a 1-2-2 defense three-quarters court in the second quarter, we lost our mojo a little bit. They made a couple of baskets and got going. Our effort was there the whole time, but our attitude wasn’t. So that’s what we talked about. We didn’t kick or scream in the locker room because that’s not what we do, but we did show the girls the difference of what an attitude can do. We told them, ‘We’ve got to come out smiling.’”
And behind a joy that was evident in its defensive intensity, Minford made sure that West Carter wouldn’t have as easy of a time getting going over the remainder of the affair.
For starters, Caudill — knowing that West Carter was coming off of a hard-fought 55-52 overtime loss to East Carter the night prior, began to employ a more intense pressure defense. That defense, led by the intensity that Daniels and Slusher brought to the table in the backcourt, ultimately resulted in a huge 13-5 spurt to start the half.
“We know that West Carter has had a tough schedule recently,” Caudill said. “They have played a number of times. We came out and pressed — probably more than we have done this entire season — but we wanted to stay in that press. We knew that their legs were tired, and we wanted to get their legs out from under them. They’re such a great shooting team, with phenomenal shooters. We knew that the only way that we were going to beat them was to tighten them up.”
As Minford began to change the momentum of the affair with its defensive pressure, Blankenship made sure the change would become reality with her play in the low post.
With nobody on West Carter’s unit being able to match the frame that the 6-3 junior provides, the Lady Falcons, knowing the mismatch, effectively exploited it as the junior big scored 10 of her 20 points in the third quarter of action — including a bucket with 5:09 to play in the third quarter — to give Minford its first lead of the second half at 38-37.
“Ashley stepped up huge for us,” Caudill said. “She was in foul trouble during the first half, so that changed a lot for us. When Ashley was able to come back, our girls did the best job that they have done all year of feeding her the basketball, and Ashley made the right plays. And as far as her post moves and aggression down on the block was concerned, that’s one of the best games I’ve seen Ashley play. Hat’s off to her.”
When West Carter’s Hannah Bear answered with a trey on the enusing offensive possession, Risner came right back to can her third trey of the affair in giving the Lady Falcons the lead back. Daniels then took over matters in the latter half of the third quarter by scoring seven of her nine third-quarter points during the final 3:30 of the period to fend off a basket from Adkins and two free throws from Becca Nolen that tied the score on a pair of occasions en route to establishing a 53-46 lead for Minford at the end of the third quarter of action en route to finishing with 28 points, eight rebounds, and two steals over the course of the affair.
“I had no idea how many Erin had,” Caudill said. “I looked at Brent (Daniels, Minford assistant coach and Erin’s Dad) when they said how many she had, and I was shocked, because our team effort was so phenomenal. When they said that she had 28 points, I had no clue. I wouldn’t have guessed half that, to be honest with you. She does so much for our team. We’re so lucky to have a player that can handle the basketball with efficiency and run the clock with such confidence, knowing that she’ll have to step up and knock the free throws down when she’s fouled.”
After getting a bucket from Blankenship and a pair of free throws from the junior to start the fourth quarter with an eight-point lead, West Carter, behind buckets from Burchett and eighth-grade sensation Allie Stone, cut the Minford lead to as little as 57-53 with a little more than 2:30 to play in the game. From there, however, the defensive pressure of Daniels and Slusher — the latter, on her own, forcing numerous tie-ups — began to wear on the Lady Comets, and a bucket from Daniels with 1:59 to play, along with another basket from Blankenship with 1:17 to go, proved to seal the deal.
“Maddie’s our little spark,” Caudill said of Slusher. “Caitlyn’s usually our big bar fighter, and she’s sick. Caitlyn made a tremendous go of it with the flu and really sucked it up big for us in order to go. Maddie, at the same time, really picked up her level of play and showed us what she could do. She was a lot of fun for us to watch. She made a lot of smart decisions with pulling the basketball out at the right times and making a lot of the right plays, but her defensive effort was phenomenal tonight. She just stepped up for us in a big, big way today. She knows what she’s in there to do and she embraces that.”
With the victory, Minford kept its perfect season going as the Lady Falcons now sit at 20-0 with the win. Two nonconference bouts with Peebles (Monday) and Waterford (Saturday) are all that separate Minford from a perfect regular season.
“These kids deserve it,” Caudill said. “Their parents have pushed them to be better people. It’s awesome to finally see all of the hard work pay off. These kids have worked their butts off for this year.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT