WAVERLY — At the beginning of the 2018-2019 basketball season, Wheelersburg’s girls weren’t even considered a frontrunner to win their conference.
So, in effect, the Pirates played with a chip on their shoulder and ripped off 13 straight league wins to claim an outright SOC II title at 13-1.
Coming into Saturday’s Division III district semifinal against No. 2 seed Fairland, the Pirates weren’t expected to compete with the Dragons’ size in the post.
You know where we’re going with this. That chip on the shoulder is still alive and well.
Wheelersburg’s small, guard-heavy lineup played extremely physical, holding the Dragons — who usually shoot quite well — to just 17-of-52 from the floor.
Meanwhile, the Pirates made the best of their opportunities when they received them, knocked down shots at critical junctures and forced 18 turnovers.
The result was a 55-45 overtime win to advance.
Lesson learned: don’t be against the Pirates.
“This win is going to have to rank right up there,” Wheelersburg coach Spradlin said. “We’re small. We joke sometimes about throwing your 85 pounds in there. I thought our kids really showed toughness. At halftime, we talked about, ‘Look, people think we can’t do it. They think we’re too small. They think we’re not tough enough.’ Our kids showed a lot of toughness, especially on the defensive end.”
Coming into the contest, the Pirates’ focus was on Fairland senior, and McDonald’s All-American nominee, Allie Marshall. The 5-foot-11 post held averages of 13.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
Saturday, she scored six points.
“[Marshall] was a focus all week because she’s such a threat in the post. She can step out as well, and [Fairland] does a lot of ball screens to get her going,” Spradlin said. “I thought our kids did a pretty good job. We gave up some 3’s out of that, but you have to give up something. I throughout we did a better job of helping and recovering after that first initial spell.”
While Marshall was hounded by Wheelersburg’s Abbie Kallner for the majority of the 32 minutes, Kallner’s teammate Lani Irwin hounded just about everybody else.
“She’s one of the quicker defenders that we have, obviously,” Spradlin said of Irwin. “It’s funny sometimes how things work. She’s had some games where she hasn’t seen a lot of playing time. But defensively, she can create a lot of havoc. I felt like she was everywhere today. She makes everybody else’s job that much easier. She stepped up and was huge today.”
Kallner and Irwin provided the spark defensively. Sophomore Kaylee Darnell did the same on the offensive end … but what else is new?
Darnell scored game-high 23 points alongside 10 rebounds and two assists.
“Lani Irwin was huge with the ball pressure and Abbie [Kallner] were both huge defensively,” Spradlin said. “Abbie was primarily defending Marshall and Kaylee was really good offensively, obviously. So lots of good energy today.”
Tale of the tape
Fairland’s Harlie Lyons got the scoring started, hitting a 3 with 6:47 left. The Dragons (19-6) used that early spark to rip off a 12-2 game-opening run before taking a 17-7 lead. Darnell ended the run before Kallner hit a 3 at the buzzer, cutting the deficit to 17-12 after one.
“When it was 17-7, you kind of thought, ‘Are the floodgates going to open?’ But our girls kept chipping away,” Spradlin said. “They were never intimidated and never looked to be down.”
In the second, Wheelersburg picked up where it left off. Ellie Kallner scored to cap a 7-0 run, making it 17-14, before Darnell later scored with 3:03 left in the first half, cutting the lead to one at 21-20. At the 2:17 mark, Alaina Keeney hit a jumper to give the Pirates their first lead, 22-21, before Abbie Kallner scored with 43.4 seconds left to make it 24-21 at the break.
In the third, Fairland took a short-lived 27-26 lead with 5:14 remaining via Kelsie Warnock. Darnell answered quickly, at the 4:52 mark, before the Dragons forced a 31-31 tie heading to the final eight minutes.
After the Pirates took a 39-37 lead with 6:54 to go, Darnell gave them a 45-40 lead with 2:56 left. But, behind Lyons, the Dragons fought back to end regulation on a 5-0 run.
However, in overtime, there would be no such fight. Darnell scored five straight points to start the extra period and give ‘Burg a 50-45 lead. That spark a 10-0 game-ending, win-sealing run.
After Darnell’s 23 points and 10 rebounds, Abbie Kallner added 11 points, four rebounds and three assists. Ellie Kallner ended with 10 points and five boards, Keeney had nine points and six rebounds, and while Irwin didn’t score, she grabbed six rebounds and led the defense.
Lyons led the Dragons with 16 points while Britney Thompson had eight. Warnock had seven points and 13 rebounds, and Marshall finished with six points and nine boards.
What’s on tap
The Pirates (21-4) advance to a Division III district final, where they’ll face top-seeded Eastern Brown. That contest is scheduled to tip at noon, March 2 at Waverly’s Downtown Arena.
“We watched Eastern Brown but right now, we’re going to enjoy this win,” Spradlin said. “We’re off tomorrow, we’re off Monday and then we’ll start practicing. Eastern Brown has some similarities to Fairland because they have size. But they’re even bigger and stronger. So it’ll be tough. But the good news is we’re playing another game. The chips will fall where they may.”
Wheelersburg: 12-12-10-11 (10) — 55
Fairland: 17-4-16-8 (0) — 45
Wheelersburg: 21-54 FG, 8-18 FT, 4-11 3pt., 36 rebounds (Darnell 10), 12 turnovers, 7 assists (A. Kallner 3). Scoring: Darnell 23, A. Kallner 11, E. Kallner 10, Keeney 9, Estep 2.
Fairland: 17-52 FG, 3-11 FT, 8-27 3pt., 33 rebounds (Warnock 13), 18 turnovers, 7 assists (Thompson 3). Scoring: Lyons 16, Thompson 8, Warnock 7, A. Marshall 6, Stone 5, E. Marshall 3.