WHEELERSBURG —Ellie Kallner connected for an open corner-pocket three-pointer for the game’s first points.
Kaylee Darnell enjoyed a first-half parade to the free-throw line.
And the host Wheelersburg Lady Pirates raced out to a 31-14 halftime advantage —putting the Lady Panthers well back on their heels and a long way from home.
An easy district semifinal victory, right?
Well, top-seeded Wheelersburg —as it turned out — was pushed to the brink on Wednesday night in its Division III district semifinal against senior-less and number-nine New Lexington, as the Panthers completely wiped Wheelersburg’s big lead out.
However, leave it to Alaina Keeney canning another three-ball on a big stage — and the Pirates making baskets and getting stops when they HAD to —as Wheelersburg withstood a furious New Lexington second-half rally, and hung on for dear life for a 47-42 triumph in Pirate Country.
With the victory, the Lady Pirates raised their record to 18-2 and —more importantly —return to the Division III district championship tilt, where they last appeared and captured the title two years ago.
Before that, it was back in 2015 when Wheelersburg last won a district crown.
“Our girls did enough there at the end to take care of it,” said Wheelersburg coach Dusty Spradlin. “We just have to watch a little bit of film and keep getting better. It’s a chance for us to play for a third championship this season. We would have liked to play better for all four quarters tonight and play a complete game, but at this point, it’s all survive and advance.”
The Lady Pirates play now No. 5-seeded and 22-2 Coal Grove, which defeated Fairland 54-47 in another district semifinal on Wednesday night.
The Lady Pirates never trailed on Wednesday, with the Lady Panthers creeping no closer than 5-4 — but the top seed sure had to work for the latest tournament win in the waning four minutes.
Wheelersburg won the opening two quarters 13-6 and 18-8, but New Lexington reversed the trend in the second half — winning the last two cantos 10-6 and 18-10.
Finally, from a 17-point halftime deficit, the Lady Panthers’ Lydia Stephens splashed two trifectas in the fourth quarter —the first from the corner cutting the deficit to 40-28 and the second off the wing that made matters really interesting for the final 2:52.
That’s when Wheelersburg only led 40-38, but Keeney’s corner-pocket triple to answer —only 27 seconds later —temporarily calmed some suddenly incredibly anxious Pirate faithful.
It was Keeney’s second trey of the period —and her only other points of the game —as she nailed another corner three just a dozen seconds in to make it 40-24 for the Lady Pirates’ second-largest advantage.
But her second three-pointer was an illustration of Wheelersburg’s perimeter-oriented team — just keep shooting until you make them.
The Lady Pirates shot 35-percent for the game on 15-of-43, including 6-of-21 for 29-percent from three-point range.
Keeney herself was just 2-of-8 with six three-point attempts, but her two triples turned out to be the difference in the five-point win.
“Alaina hit a big three there, and she has done that all year for us. We’ve been in a little bit of a funk shooting the ball, but we’re reminding them and keeping after them that we are good shooters. We just have to make sure our feet are set and we can let it fly from there,” said Spradlin. “The worst thing you can do is be out there thinking about whether you should shoot or not.”
Darnell, the sure-fire first-team all-Southeast District senior standout, shot a lot as well in playing ALL 32 minutes— especially from the foul line in converting nine out of 16.
But she only attempted four free throws following halftime and made only one — as she shot 50-percent from the field on 6-of-12 for a game-high 23 points to match her jersey number.
She scored 15 in the opening half and tied Keeney with a couple of triples, and recorded a double-double with a game-high 12 rebounds — while also dishing out four assists and making off with five steals.
Makenna Walker also scored six points on three two-point buckets, while Kallner —at 2-of-3 with two second-quarter tosses —was the only other Pirate player to step to the stripe.
In addition to Kallner’s three-pointer, Madison Whittaker made one in the first quarter as well —while Lexie Rucker and Lyndsay Heimbach also got in on the act with second-quarter field goals.
The secret, or not-so secret, to Wheelersburg’s first-half success was its defense — as New Lexington made just seven shots and attempted two free throws.
While the Panthers shot almost 50-percent (48.6-percent) on 18-of-37 from inside the arc, they struggled outside of it —with Stephens’ two being the only makes on 19 total attempts.
“Defensively, I thought we were good and made them work for a lot of things,” said Spradlin.
However, in a tale of two halves, Darnell — with a trey, a deuce and a freebie —scored all six of the Lady Pirates’ third-period points, as Darnell and Walker with fourth-quarter buckets accounted for their other quarter counters besides Keeney’s.
New Lexington, which amped up and extended outward its defensive full-court pressure, turned Wheelersburg over 16 times —an unusually high number for it.
The 5-11 Kim Kellogg and 5-8 Aubri Spicer combined for 14 second-half points to make up much of the Lady Panthers’ difference, as Kellogg scored 14 total points on seven baskets —tying Stephens for team-high honors, who also had four twos.
Spicer had four field goals for eight points, as Emma Abrams with two buckets and Trinity Cook with one rounded out the Lady Panthers’ scoring.
New Lexington made 14 steals with Kellogg coming up with six, as Stephens, Spicer, Abrams and Cook collected two apiece.
Spradlin said the Panthers’ press was effective because of their length and athleticism —and ability to stay out of foul trouble in the second half as opposed to the first.
“It’s hard to replicate that (in practice). We knew some of the different presses they were going to throw at us and we tried to convince the kids, but their length bothered us, especially with the (Aubri) Spicer girl at the top. She is really good, heady, long and athletic,” said the coach. “The third quarter, they came out in desperation mode and really extended their pressure and got aggressive with it and we turned the ball over. When we turned the ball over, it just leads right to transition points.”
Spicer and Darnell, following Keeney’s key three, traded baskets for a 45-40 Wheelersburg bulge and a minute and 45 seconds showing — and Lauren Jolly forced a tie-up for the Lady Pirates possession after Stephens misfired from three at the 1:24 mark.
On the ensuing Pirate possession, Darnell basically beat the press and assisted on a Walker basket, which was critical since Kellogg countered underneath on the Panthers’ next trip down the floor.
That made it 47-42, but despite the Pirates missing three front ends of the one-and-one bonus situation in the final 23 seconds, they still held on for the win.
And, in the final week of February and possibly early March for Wheelersburg, ANY win is all that matters.
Although, defeating the Lady Panthers has to be considered a quality victory —given New Lexington concluded its season at 19-4 and had only lost to Division I Gahanna, Division II powerhouse Sheridan and fellow Division III stronghold Alexander.
“They (Lady Panthers) are a very good team. Probably shouldn’t have been a nine seed. And they are bringing all of those kids back next year, so they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the district,” said Spradlin.
But that will be then, as Wheelersburg is simply glued into the here and now.
Tipoff time on Saturday for the Division III district championship is set for 2 p.m. —at Ironton High School’s Conley Center.
Spradlin said the Lady Hornets have height, length and athleticism as does New Lexington, and a senior scoring machine in Addi Dillow —Coal Grove’s new career scoring leader.
“We have our work cut out for us. The Dillow girl is very athletic. We’re going to see some press, and they’re big and have another shooter too,” he said. “They are talented, and at this point, we have got to make sure we are playing our best.”
Because that’s what Wheelersburg will need in order to win its third championship for this season.
“All you can ask for at the beginning of the season is to hopefully play for as many championships as possible,” said Spradlin. “We’ve got an SOC and a sectional. Now we get to play for a district.”
New Lexington 6 8 10 18— 42
Wheelersburg 13 18 6 10 — 47
NEW LEXINGTON 42 (19-4)
Lydia Stephens 6 0-0 14, Cami Huffman 0 0-0 0, Emma Abrams 2 0-0 4, Kim Kellogg 7 0-0 14, Trinity Cook 1 0-0 2, Abby Wilson 0 0-0 0, Aubri Spicer 4 0-2 8; TOTALS 20 0-2 42; Three-point field goals: 2 (Lydia Stephens 2)
WHEELERSBURG 47 (18-2)
Ellie Kallner 1 2-3 5, Madison Whittaker 1 0-0 3, Lauren Jolly 0 0-0 0, Kiera Kennard 0 0-0 0, Alaina Keeney 2 0-0 6, Kaylee Darnell 6 9-16 23, Lyndsay Heimbach 1 0-0 2, Makenna Walker 3 0-0 6, Lexie Rucker 1 0-0 2, Macee Eaton 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 15 11-19 47; Three-point field goals: 6 (Alaina Keeney and Kaylee Darnell 2 apiece, Ellie Kallner and Madison Whittaker 1 apiece)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved