MINFORD — When two excellent programs come together to schedule a nonconference battle within a week of go or go home time, it’s certainly admirable for a pair of units that don’t necessarily need to schedule each other.
However, the Minford Falcons’ girls basketball program and the Waterford Wildcats’ girls basketball program aren’t your ordinary units.
The pair of teams, who showed on Saturday evening that they are more about fighting for each other and more about improvement as basketball teams than egos or prides, battled to the very last second in arguably the best basketball contest — boys or girls — that one could’ve hoped to watch to this point in the 2017-18 season.
After falling behind by 11 points at the end of the first quarter, Scott Caudill’s Lady Falcons dug as deep as they had all season long and rallied back to take a 42-41 advantage by the end of the third quarter. However, Rachael Adams’ 20 points, along with Megan Ball’s 19 tallies and Alli Kern’s 10, allowed the Lady ‘Cats of Waterford to take a late lead with just 1:29 to play and hold on for a 62-60 victory in front of a capacity crowd at Minford High School.
For Caudill, the contest — even though the final result wasn’t what the third-year head coach or his squad ultimately wanted — was so scintillating and represented so many qualities that make sports so fun to watch that it was hard to view the final result as anything other than an actual victory.
“We’ve just got to get a little more disciplined at boxing out and executing on the offensive end,” Caudill said. “And those are the weaknesses that we knew would come to light because we haven’t been tested like that. That was why I was so excited for this game. In my mind, this was a win for us. I really believe that. I’m really disappointed because I know that the girls wanted the undefeated record, but it’s really minute when you look at the big picture.”
While Minford (20-1) ultimately battled Waterford (20-1) to a tight 8-6 gap to begin the game, the play of Ball in the open floor, as well as the Lady ‘Cats’ patience on the offensive end, proved to be too much for the Lady Falcons initially.
The senior forward, who was outstanding as a distributor, jump shooter, and a slasher all game long, followed up an and-one that allowed Waterford to take an early lead by setting up Adams and Kern for triples while canning one of her own from dead-on to account for all three of the Lady ‘Cats’ treys in the quarter. Kern then capped off the frame with two jumpers, including a contested buzzer-beating shot from the elbow, to finish with 11 points in the quarter as Waterford jumped out to a 23-12 first-quarter lead behind the shooting of the trio as well as three offensive rebounds that were converted into second-chance points.
“We’re a big, physical team, and all year long, we’ve had the mismatch inside on the boards, but we knew that over the course of the season, one of weaknesses has been boxing out,” Caudill said. “Waterford really hit on one of our biggest weaknesses because in the first half, especially, they got offensive rebound after offensive rebound.”
But while Waterford managed its advantage to around a 10 or 12-point margin in the second quarter of play, Minford began to reverse their own fortunes as the game moved into the latter half of the second frame. After switching from a zone look to a man-to-man defensive set, the Lady Falcons held Waterford to just three field goals in the entire second quarter after giving up three field goals over the first 90 seconds of play to start the game.
Of course, it also helped that Erin Daniels and Ashley Blankenship stayed persistent in their own unselfish ways — as the pair have done all season long. Daniels, who finished with a game-high 27 points, and Blankenship, who notched 10 points for the affair, combined for 10 and eight points, respectively, in the opening half as the former relentlessly attached the basket while the latter used her 6-3 frame to seal off opponents en route to accumulating great looks for herself. Behind those efforts, Minford was able to close the deficit to within a 33-27 tally by the halftime break.
“When we were struggling in the first half, Ashley did a great job in the first half offensively,” Caudill said. “We knew that we had that mismatch there, but when they put (Megan) Ball on her, that’s tough. She’s a heck of an athlete, and so is (Alli) Kern. Those two are basketball players. They were able to match up with Erin and Ashley pretty good, so it came down to a battle of role players. Erin played lights out on the offensive end of the floor for us,” Caudill said. “She was phenomenal for us. She’s a leader. What a heck of a way for a senior to play against the No. 1 team in the Division IV ranks, and what a way to battle and lead her team back. I’m proud of all of the kids.”
Needing only 21 points to break Steve Yeagle’s all-time scoring record of 1,518 points set for a career, Daniels’ 27 put the senior guard on the top of the scoring heap. The Ashland University signee, who now holds 1,524 points over her legendary tenure at Minford, wasn’t thinking about the record — and it was obvious as soon as one saw Daniels walk off the floor after a tremendous effort that truly put the senior, once again, in a class all on her own.
“She’s still emotional,” Caudill said. “I’ll be honest, we haven’t even talked about the record. She wants to win. She’s still upset about the loss and in tears. That, to me, speaks volumes about the kid right there. I don’t think she knows that she’s even broken the record. She doesn’t have a clue yet, to be honest with you. She has no clue that she broke the record, but she didn’t win the ballgame, and that’s what bothers her the most. It’s that type of attitude that has made her into the player that she is.”
But at the time that the second half began, Minford was still very much alive in front of a capacity crowd. That crowd — which had completely filled both sides of the gym up by the second half of the junior varsity meeting between the pair — roared to life as Daniels nailed a second-half opening three pointer from the left wing and battled inside for a basket, then, after an 8-0 Waterford run, nearly blew the roof off of the place as Caitlyn Puckett’s five straight points — including a three from the right wing with 39 seconds to go to cap off a 10-1 spurt — sent the crowd into a frenzy as Minford took a 42-41 lead at the end of the third quarter.
“Waterford came out on fire, but our girls showed a lot of grit,” Caudill said. “They stayed focused. Waterford played as physical of a man-to-man defensive look as we’ve seen all year long, and that three-quarters press bothered us a little bit too, but once we settled in, I thought that our girls did a tremendous job. I couldn’t be more proud of their efforts and their ability to stay focused as they were facing pressure. Erin had the hot hand and the girls did a good job of getting her the basketball.”
Puckett, who scored five of her seven points in that third quarter, proved to be a problem for Waterford on both ends as the injury bug fought off another ongoing personal bug — the flu — to make a huge impact. Mackenzie Watters’ defense on Alli Kern — excellent from ball denial to guarding at the point of attack — and Maddie Slusher’s defense, which was tenacious as has been the case all year — also proved to be huge during the run.
“Caitlyn came out in the second half and made a phenomenal run for us,” Caudill said. “She grabbed a bunch of steals, 50-50 balls, and forced a bunch of tieups. Mackenzie and Maddie were huge for us tonight. Maddie played a great game defensively. As for Mackenzie, I messed up. She wanted to play another quarter of junior varsity basketball, and begged me to play that third quarter of the JV game. I let her. I regretted that big time when the fourth quarter came around, because she was out of quarters, so I couldn’t put her back in the game. She did a really good job on Kern for us tonight, and really slowed her down. It was great to see her step up.”
The outstanding defensive effort and second half rebounding, however, wasn’t really due to the efforts of any one particular player as much as it was a team effort.
“With Ball and Kern being so long and athletic, we figured that we would struggle a little bit man-to-man, actually,” Caudill said. “We didn’t plan on playing as much man-to-man as we did, but when they came out on fire in that first quarter, we had to switch. Our girls did a really nice job. We know that Waterford is very patient and fundamental in their offensive approach, and I thought that our girls did a great, great job of sticking their heads in gaps and anticipating their cuts. We didn’t get face cut as much as they have done on other teams. It was just a good, physical basketball game. That’s what Jerry (Close) wanted and that’s what I wanted.”
That one lead change in the third quarter, however, was simply a precursor to a frantic fourth-quarter. During the frame, the lead ultimately changed hands eight additional times between the two programs. Daniels’ record-breaking shot at the 2:37 mark tied the score for the third time in the quarter, but Jerry Close’s unit proved to have the answer throughout the quarter as a pair of missed free throws by Minford, along with Waterford’s solid free throw shooting in the period, ultimately had the Lady Falcons down by a 61-60 count with 8.5 seconds remaining.
When Kern, who was at the line for a pair, missed the second free throw, it was clear that Minford had an excellent chance to answer. However, a turnover in the backcourt allowed Waterford to get the ball back with 1.3 seconds left, where Ball also hit the first of two free throws. Daniels’ three-quarters court heave fell off to the right as time expired to allow Waterford to walk away with the victory.
“I don’t want these girls to take this hard,” Caudill said of the loss. “With the way that we played, it’s not a loss in my mind. The girls want to make a deep tournament run, and they needed to see a team like that because they are a team that exposed our weaknesses. Our girls stepped up, battled, and made the adjustments. What more can you ask for? It came down to one shot, and when you have two good basketball teams like that, it could’ve gone either way. We’re thankful that Waterford made the trip to play us.”
While the Lady Falcons weren’t able to obtain a goal that they would’ve liked to have accomplished at the beginning of the season with the loss to the Lady ‘Cats, Saturday evening’s game — which was Senior Night for Daniels, Marissa Risner, Marissa Watters, and Zoe Doll — may have very well brought something greater to the table.
If nothing else, it showed the appreciation that girls basketball certainly deserves in Southeastern Ohio, considering not only the talent, but more importantly, the character of the girls on the floor.
“I’m so proud of these girls,” Caudill said. “I’m proud of my seniors. This was the kind of atmosphere that we wanted for these girls. They created this atmosphere with their hard work and effort. It’s all for them. I’m so proud that tonight was as outstanding of an atmosphere as it was.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT