MARIETTA — Teams who are talented and work extremely hard to maximize the talent available at its disposal can always leave the court happy when the time comes to walk off of the playing surface for the final time during a season.
And even though the Minford Falcons’ girls basketball program ran into an absolute buzzsaw in the Columbus Africentric Nubians’ girls basketball program, the 2017-18 Lady Falcons never threw in the towel in anything that they pursued during the season — and the result is a program that will be remembered for the rest of time by the Minford faithful who watched the program come along.
After playing Africentric to a 15-12 first-quarter margin, and even fighting off the Lady Nubians’ relentless end-to-end pressure, the Lady Falcons of Minford ultimately took a 16-15 advantage with 6:17 to play in the second quarter as the starting five of Ashley Blankenship, Erin Daniels, Caitlyn Puckett, Marissa Risner, and Maddie Slusher all got on the scoreboard during a strong spell by Minford that included a pair of threes from the latter pair of players.
But the Lady Falcons, unfortunately, had only seen the beginning of what Jordan Horston and Alexia Smith were about to offer.
Horston, who didn’t score a single point in the first quarter and turned the basketball over three times, and Smith, who scored just three points in the opening stanza, exploded for 15 points between the pair in the second quarter alone as the Lady Nubians used a 23-2 spurt over the remaining length of time in the frame en route to a 38-18 halftime lead. Minford never came any closer the rest of the way as the Lady Falcons fell to Africentric, 72-45, and saw its season come to a close as a result of the Division III, Region 11 Semifinal loss at Marietta College in Marietta.
The loss, however, didn’t dampen the spirits of Scott Caudill and certainly didn’t extinguish a newly-sparked fire that came from this year’s Lady Falcons.
“From the exciting victories that ultimately led to the school’s fourth district championship in school history to the individual accolades and sacrifices that the girls accomplished or made, the season was truly magical,” Caudill said. “I’ve been, off and on, emotionally down because you want to see accolades for these kids, but, at the end of the day, I believe that we did. We got to experience some with the SOC II Championship, the Division III Sectional Championship, and the Division III, Waverly I District Championship that we won, and we got to play one of the best teams that I have seen play in girls basketball (in Africentric). The girls made memories, and that’s really all you can ask for.”
In the opening quarter of play, it was Minford who looked more crisp to begin the contest.
The Lady Falcons, who effectively broke the Lady Nubians’ full-court pressure and showed off solid execution in its halfcourt sets, used a three-pointer from Slusher from dead-on, along with another three-ball from Risner from the left wing, to keep the score notched at 10 before Blankenship muscled her way inside for a low-post basket to give the Lady Falcons their second lead of the contest at 12-10 before Columbus Africentric’s Samika Walker scored four points down low to give the Lady Nubians a 15-12 lead at the end of the opening quarter.
Minford, however, wasn’t done executing. In the second quarter of action, the Lady Falcons muscled their way back in front as Daniels — who drew a foul in transition en route to a pair of free throws — and Blankenship, who scored on a right-handed finish while being closely guarded by Walker — allowed Minford to go on a 4-0 run and take the lead back by a 16-15 tally with 6:17 to play in the half.
But after an Africentric timeout, Horston — who sprained her ankle while attempting a jumper in the first quarter — and Smith went on a monstrous tear that removed all doubt of the contest’s final result.
By the time the run was over, the 6-0 junior — a five-star prospect in the junior class and the sixth best overall player in said class — and Smith obtained 15 points between them in the second quarter alone as the Lady Nubians took control. Smith, who finished with a team-high 14 points, and Horston, who added 12, were simply sensational during the contest both at the head of Africentric’s full-court press and in transition, where the pair ultimately sparked a 35-2 run that didn’t end until Livi Shonkwiler buried a trey from the top of the circle with 4:33 to play in the third quarter of action.
“You’re taking about NCAA Division I college athletes here,” Caudill said. “When you have a girl (in Jordan Horston) who is on the Under-17 USA National Team face-guarding Erin, and you have another Division I athlete (in Alexia Smith) face-guarding Caitlyn Puckett, that takes away our two best ballhandlers, and that’s when the tide turned. We were up by a 16-15 mark, and the next thing that you know, it was lights out. Africentric called a timeout, made those necessary adjustments, and next thing you know, it’s a 20-point game within five and a half minutes. They’re top-tier. They’re lightning-quick.”
And Caudill’s overall grade on Horston? Without a doubt, an A.
“(Horston’s) the best Division III basketball player that I’ve ever seen,” Caudill said. “She would be up and down the court in three to four strides, and at a speed that I’ve never seen amongst girls basketball players.”
Still, Minford showed off tremendous fight. Down by a 56-25 count with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter, Blankenship mixed in two two finishes inside to decrease the margin to 56-30. Risner then added a deep three-pointer from the left corner to cut the Africentric lead to 56-33, and Daniels fought her way inside the paint for a short jumper that cut the Lady Nubians’ lead to its lowest of the second half, 56-35, with 7:20 to play in the game. However, Africentric removed all doubt of a late Minford rally as the Lady Nubians went on a 9-3 spurt to take a 65-38 lead and kept the margin hovering around the 25 to 27-point barrier for the remainder of the contest.
The fight that Minford had down 31 points, however, and the never-give-up attitude that the Lady Falcons had throughout the game, only cemented what Caudill already knew.
“When you look at a team, you want to make sure that your kids reach maximize their potential,” Caudill said. “There’s so many times in sports where you see a talented team not exceed or meet expectations. When I look at the 2017-18 Lady Falcons, they met every expectation and more, and at the end of the day, what more can you ask for? So I’m really not down. In fact, I’m excited for our kids. This season will be an exciting memory that I was blessed to be a part of with such amazing kids and parents. I still see smiles from girls’ faces. We’re not down. These girls came out and they worked their butts off all season long. The parents were outstanding, the community was outstanding, and everyone bought into their roles. The season that we had is a result of that.”
While Minford certainly will have a lot of talent back in the form of Blankenship, Puckett, Slusher, Shonkwiler, Hannah Tolle, Makenzie Watters, and Hannah Thacker, along with a strong array of junior varsity talent that includes Brittani Wolfenbarker, Ally Coriell, and Micah Thacker, among others, waiting right in the wings, Caudill knows that the program will be more than capable of making yet another deep postseason run.
However, the returnees, to obtain the type of success that this year’s group had, will have to fill the voids that their four seniors — Daniels, Doll, Risner, and Marissa Watters — are leaving behind.
“Their leadership was outstanding,” Caudill said. “The charisma that they brought to practice every day, their stable mentality every day, and their positive attitudes every day were huge. They ran practice with those qualities. That’s what we’re going to miss. We’ll need kids to step up and take on those leadership roles. It’s going to be very, very hard to replace Erin Daniels, Zoe Doll, Marissa Risner, and Marissa Watters. Everything that they bought into has just been outstanding, and their leadership and charisma made this season so fun.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT