RICHMOND DALE — Before his postgame media interview on Wednesday night, Dusty Spradlin said he had “no idea about stats” — in regards to his Lady Pirates’ performance.
“I will say this. I know no stats or numbers right now,” said an elated Spradlin. “So whatever you tell me will be news to me.”
No worries Dusty, because the only two numbers you or anybody else needed to know were Wheelersburg’s 56 and Eastern Brown’s 41.
Of course, numbers never lie —and the truth of the matter in March is simple: score more points than the opponent and advance on.
That’s what Wheelersburg did against the Eastern Brown Lady Warriors inside Southeastern High School’s Larry Jordan Gymnasium —stifling the Lady Warriors with a pair of six-point first-half periods and leading for the final 28 minutes and 25 seconds, as Wheelersburg won 56-41 in a much-anticipated Division III regional semifinal.
The ‘Burg, the Southeast District’s Division III top seed, is back in the regional championship game — with a state tournament appearance at stake on Saturday afternoon.
With the win, the Lady Pirates raised their stellar record to 20-2 and —more importantly — return to the regional title affair for the second time in three years.
Two years ago, Lani Irwin’s incredible — and even improbable — three-ball beat the final buzzer in the regional semifinal, as Wheelersburg edged Morgan before falling to Hiland in the championship game.
Speaking of the storied Lady Hawks — look who is back — as Hiland, an overwhelming favorite for the Division III state championship and which finished as the top-ranked team in the division’s Associated Press statewide poll, makes the long trek to Southeastern to play the Lady Pirates.
Tipoff time is set for 1:30 p.m., as Hiland had its hands full with Fort Frye on Wednesday night in the other semifinal at Cambridge — winning 46-39, but had to make six final free throws in the final two minutes.
Against Eastern, the Lady Pirates — under the leadership of the 19-year head coach Spradlin —only trailed for not even two-and-a-half minutes, and perhaps surprisingly led by at least four points for the final 26.
The Lady Pirates —playing in their eighth (1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2008, 2015, 2019 and 2021) all-time regional semifinal and all within the past three decades —put perhaps one of their best all-time tournament triumphs together on Wednesday night.
The defense was airtight, the rebounding was a war waged against the bigger Lady Warriors and won, and Wheelersburg did simply what teams MUST do in ALL tournament bouts —make shots.
The Pirates pumped in 22 total field goals, including five three-point goals by senior standout Kaylee Darnell and four — including three in the all-so critical fourth quarter — by sophomore Madison Whittaker.
Nine Lady Pirates played as part of the regular rotation and eight scored — as Darnell followed up her massive 31-point performance against Coal Grove in the district championship game with a team-high 25-point outburst against Eastern.
She made four twos in addition to her five threes, and gave Wheelersburg its largest lead at 55-36 with her two made free throws following a steal.
But the Lady Pirates are much more than just Darnell — as she went one-on-one, point-for-point and toe-to-toe with Eastern Brown sophomore standout Rylee Leonard.
“Everybody that stepped in played as hard as they could play, and I really thought our kids would come in and give a good effort,” said Spradlin. “I think everybody knows how talented Eastern Brown is. The Leonard girl is really special as a sophomore. And (Eastern Brown coach Kevin) Coach Pickerill and I have coached against each other for quite a while. At this level, it just comes down to making shots. Kaylee (Darnell) and Rylee (Leonard) just traded shots back and forth, but I thought we had great energy, especially early. Our rebounding and our defense early was really good. I thought that everybody that played for us was just phenomenal.”
Leonard landed a game-high 26 points on five deuces and four treys, which was opposite of Darnell, as she sank 4-of-4 fourth-quarter foul shots.
However, no other Lady Warrior scored more than five —as Wheelersburg stymied them to only six points apiece in each of the opening two stanzas.
In the first, Leonard hit two triples — the first for Eastern’s only advantage at 3-2 and the second off the wing for a 7-6 deficit.
In the second, exactly eight minutes later at the 2:12 mark, Leonard made her third three —but the Pirates pushed ahead 19-9 at that juncture.
Kirsten Bailey with two free throws and Caitlyn Wills with one were Eastern Brown’s only other points of the entire half, as Wheelersburg won the first quarter 10-6 and the second 14-6 to build a 24-12 double-up by halftime.
The Lady Pirates simply kept Eastern out of the paint, forced perimeter shots, and shaded shooters to the point where the Warriors were just not making anything.
They also kept the bigger Lady Warriors from gaining control of the boards —so Eastern was not shooting nor rebounding well.
“They have some shooters that can scare you to death, but it’s that balance of how much you hang on shooters and how much you let Leonard have a big driving lane,” said Spradlin. “I thought our kids really bought in and were focused in on their personnel and what we were trying to do.”
What Darnell did was pop three first-half three-pointers as part of 11 points, as Whittaker — with her first three off an inbounds set — made it 10-6 at the two-minute mark of the first quarter.
Ellie Kallner in the first and Lauren Jolly, Makenna Walker, Lexie Rucker and Macee Eaton in the second all added baskets — as Wheelersburg ballooned the lead to perhaps that surprising halftime score.
Kallner and Walker both bucketed three times for six points apiece.
In the third quarter, the momentum from the first half carried over through the opening four minutes and 21 seconds — as Wheelersburg made it a pair of 17-point (33-16 and 35-18) margins on Walker’s other two baskets.
But Leonard kept the Lady Warriors within striking distance with four consecutive two-pointers, as Eastern amounted 10 unanswered points to get within 35-28 — on buckets by Mary Litzinger and Emma Brown and two from Mackenzie Gloff.
Darnell and Leonard then exchanged field goals for a 37-30 score just 35 seconds into the fourth —before another Darnell three off the wing, with back-to-back corner-pocket trifectas from Whittaker, accounting for the Lady Pirates’ next nine markers.
Once again, Spradlin said it was all a matter of making shots, especially from Whittaker in a clutch spot.
“Madi is a kid who can really shoot it. When she gets going, and a shooter makes that first one, you never know. She is a sophomore that we’ve tried to work in there, and we’re just really happy for her that she was able to come in at such a big moment in the game and hit those threes,” said the coach.
That made it 46-33 with 5:55 to play, as Eastern — which ends its season at 24-3 — got no closer after Leonard canned her final three only 11 seconds later.
From there, Wheelersburg reeled off the next nine counters —making it 55-36 on baskets by Kallner and Darnell and freebies from Darnell, sandwiched around another Whittaker three off another inbound set with three-and-a-half to play.
Leonard fouled out after her scoring her 25th and 26th points, as Alaina Keeney —beset by foul trouble the entire game —converted a free throw for the final Pirate point.
Wheelersburg won Wednesday without two of its primary ballhandlers, Keeney and Kallner, on the floor much.
But the likes of Whittaker, and especially Eaton against the taller Lady Warriors inside, picked up the slack.
“Alaina (Keeney) and Ellie (Kallner) are two kids that handle the ball for us a lot. To have them sitting on the bench in foul trouble at several different moments during the game, that says a lot about these other kids that came in,” said Spradlin. “They played their role and did what we needed them to do.”
And what Wheelersburg needed to do on Wednesday wasn’t rocket science —simply score more points than the Lady Warriors and advance.
Of course, the Lady Pirates must do that again on Saturday — against talented, highly-touted and tradition-rich Hiland.
Wheelersburg will be an underdog, an overwhelming one to some observers in fact, but the Lady Hawks —as Fort Frye showed — are not invincible.
The Lady Pirates also have an advantage of already having played at Southeastern, as for Hiland — that’s a long Saturday morning drive down to a transported Pirate Country.
Still, as Spradlin said again, it’s a matter of making more shots.
Only this time, a state tournament ticket is to be punched.
“We know they (Hiland) are a storied program with over 900 wins and all of those kids were sophomores when we played them two years ago. Hopefully, our kids are a little more comfortable being in this spot,” said Spradlin. “We obviously have a very tall task ahead of us, but it’s a game, anything can happen, and we’re certainly going to give it our best shot.”
* * *
Eastern Brown 6 6 16 13 — 41
Wheelersburg 10 14 13 19 — 56
EASTERN BROWN 41 (24-3)
Kirsten Bailey 1 2-2 5, Caitlyn Wills 0 1-2 1, Rylee Leonard 9 4-4 26, Bailey Dotson 0 0-0 0, Mary Litzinger 1 0-0 2, Emma Prine 0 0-0 0, McKenzie Dotson 0 0-1 0, Emma Brown 1 0-2 2, Mackenzie Gloff 2 1-2 5, Izzy Barber 0 0-0 0, Rachel Dixon 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 14 8-13 41; Three-point field goals: 5 (Rylee Leonard 4, Kirsten Bailey 1)
WHEELERSBURG 56 (20-2)
Ellie Kallner 3 0-1 6, Madison Whittaker 4 0-0 12, Lauren Jolly 1 0-0 2, Kiera Kennard 0 0-2 0, Grace Charles 0 0-0 0, Jocelyn Tilley 0 0-0 0, Alaina Keeney 0 1-2 1, Isabell Hamilton 0 0-0 0, Kaylee Darnell 9 2-2 25, Lyndsay Heimbach 0 0-0 0, Makenna Walker 3 0-2 6, Lexie Rucker 1 0-0 2, Macee Eaton 1 0-0 2, Mika Jones 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 22 3-9 56; Three-point field goals: 9 (Kaylee Darnell 5, Madison Whittaker 4)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved