RICHMOND DALE — Unfortunately for the Wheelersburg Lady Pirates, they eventually had to face the highly-touted Hiland Lady Hawks.
The Lady Pirates had been down this road before, two years ago in fact, in losing heavily to storied and tradition-rich Hiland in the Division III regional championship tilt.
But on Saturday inside Southeastern High School’s Larry Jordan Gymnasium, they had an opportunity at redemption — and once again with a state tournament ticket to be punched.
But the Lady Pirates, once again, found themselves overmatched by the talented Lady Hawks —easily the top-ranked Division III girls club in the Buckeye State for 2021.
Hiland never trailed, Wheelersburg was tied just once at 3-3, and the Lady Pirates trailed for the game’s final 29 minutes — as Wheelersburg went on to fall 57-31 in Saturday’s regional final.
The silver linings in the proverbial clouds at least: Hiland never once put the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s running-clock rule on the Lady Pirates — and this was a better outcome than Wheelersburg’s 61-23 loss against the Lady Hawks two years ago.
Still, Wheelersburg was once again stymied to a season-low in points —easily fewer than the 45 it posted in its regular-season loss at Division II state semifinalist Vinton County, and in its sectional championship game against Portsmouth West.
Zoe Miller made a Lady Hawks’ three-pointer only 55 seconds in, and Alaina Keeney connected from the corner only 55 seconds later — forging the 3-3 tie with just a minute and 50 seconds gone by.
But from here, as NewFound Glory once sang, it was all downhill for the Lady Pirates.
Hiland’s Brynn Mullet made a basket for a 5-3 advantage, and Wheelersburg would never get closer.
In fact, Keeney —who scored just a single solitary free throw in the Lady Pirates’ 56-41 regional semifinal victory over Eastern Brown —converted a split of freebies with 33 seconds left in the opening quarter, for Wheelersburg’s only other first-period point.
That made it 11-4, as Miller scored again for Hiland — which never scored fewer than a dozen points in any of the four quarters, and never allowed Wheelersburg to score more than 11.
The Lady Hawks, with three regular rotation players standing at least six-foot tall with two listed at 6-1 including Alia Miller and Zoe Miller, had a distinct advantage in size — as Keeney was Wheelersburg’s tallest player at 5-10.
Hiland handled the Lady Pirates in rebounding by a 40-28 margin, including 10 by six-foot Kelsey Swihart.
But Wheelersburg was making shots against Eastern Brown in the regional semi — where it wasn’t on Saturday against now 26-1 Hiland.
Wheelersburg coach Dusty Spradlin said that the Lady Hawks had trouble putting Fort Frye away in the other regional semifinal — because the Lady Cadets kept it close by making shots.
The Lady Hawks won that contest 46-39 after being tied at halftime 26-26, and needed six final free throws in the final two minutes to prevail.
“If we make a couple of those early shots, you never know. But we’ll never know that. That’s what we knew we had to do. Fort Frye was able to do that by making their first three three-point attempts against them. What it (making shots) does is give you some momentum and helps some people relax,” said Spradlin. “It’s kind of what we faced two years ago. We got some shots early, but couldn’t get them to fall. Then you start pressing a little bit when you see the scoreboard going. It starts wearing on you. Our kids were so determined to make a play. We were driving the lane and we struggled to finish over their length. We kept trying to get them to drive and kick the ball out a little bit more. I know those outside shots weren’t falling, but they were at least open shots. The shots down in the lane were contested and were tough to make.”
In falling behind 13-4 following the first quarter and 30-11 at halftime, the Lady Pirates shot just 3-of-20 in the entire opening half —including only 1-of-10 in the initial frame.
In the second stanza, Kaylee Darnell and Makenna Walker scored field goals — while Walker, Macee Eaton and Ellie Kallner all split free throws.
The Lady Pirates trailed by double figures for the final 21 minutes and 47 seconds, as Hiland held its largest lead at 28 points on two occasions —at 39-11 in the third and 54-26 in the fourth.
The Lady Hawks — with a three-ball by Mullet and back-to-back trifectas from Kyli Horn — hit the lead up to 39-11 with 4:49 left in the third, but Wheelersburg would score seven straight points as part of a 9-3 splurge for its best offensive outburst of the day.
Keeney scored two more baskets towards her team-high 10 points, along with another Walker deuce and a Madison Whittaker trey.
In the fourth, Keeney and Darnell scored twos, Walker and Kallner canned a three apiece, and Darnell split a pair of free throws for five points.
In all, the Lady Pirates shot just 25-percent from the field on 11-of-44, and committed 11 turnovers which were also costly.
Hiland hit eight of its 19 three-point attempts to double up the Lady Pirates’ four of 16, as Mullet and Horn had three apiece — and Ashley Mullet and Zoe Miller made one.
Horn honed in 5-of-6 free throws as well, giving her a game-high 14 points —as Miller made four field goals and 4-of-7 foul shots for 13.
With the loss, the Lady Pirates end their stellar season at 20-3 —as Spradlin said they were “more prepared than we were two years ago”.
“Our kids battled really hard, but we were giving up a lot of size, and they have a lot of depth and a lot of experience with both their post play and perimeter play,” said the coach. “I’m just so proud that our kids continued to fight. And that’s all you can really expect out of them. All of that stuff will serve them well beyond basketball.”
And, beyond high school.
Darnell, Kallner and Lauren Jolly are the Lady Pirates’ three seniors —as Darnell will graduate as a three-time all-Southeast District first-teamer, and thus as a three-time all-Ohio honoree.
She also scored her 1,000th career point as a junior and has committed to playing basketball at the University of Rio Grande, while Kallner committed to Concordia University — and Jolly to Rio Grande for both volleyball and track and field.
The Lady Pirates, thanks largely to that trio, are twice regional runners-up to Hiland —along with winners of 43 consecutive Southern Ohio Conference Division II tilts.
That league winning streak stretches into next season.
“All three of them (seniors) bring different things. Kaylee carried the load scoring, Ellie is actually undervalued as to what she is able to do, and Lauren Jolly just comes in with a high motor and never stops,” said Spradlin. “We’re certainly going to miss those three. We’ve been extremely blessed to have them in our program. They are super kids in addition to very good basketball players, and I can’t emphasize that enough.”
It’s just unfortunate that they and the Lady Pirates had to run into — again — that statewide buzzsaw that is indeed the Lady Hawks.
“Since that last loss to Hiland two years ago, we’ve talked a lot about trying to get back to this point. We wanted to see them (Hiland) again, just to see how much better could we get,” said Spradlin. “We played for a regional title, and even though it was a tough opponent, a lot of teams would have gladly traded places with us.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 4 7 9 11 —31
Hiland 13 17 15 12— 57
WHEELERSBURG 31 (20-3)
Ellie Kallner 1 1-2 4, Madison Whittaker 1 0-0 3, Annie Coriell 0 0-0 0, Lauren Jolly 0 0-0 0, Kiera Kennard 0 0-0 0, Alaina Keeney 4 1-2 10, Isabella Hamilton 0 0-0 0, Kaylee Darnell 2 1-2 5, Lyndsay Heimbach 0 0-0 0, Makenna Walker 3 1-2 8, Lexie Rucker 0 0-0 0, Macee Eaton 0 1-2 1; TOTALS 11 5-10 31; Three-point field goals: 4 (Ellie Kallner, Madison Whittaker, Alaina Keeney and Makenna Walker 1 apiece)
HILAND 57 (26-1)
Alia Miller 2 0-0 4, Jenna Troyer 0 0-0 0, Morgan Yoder 1 0-0 2, Ashley Mullet 2 0-1 5, Tegan Harris 0 0-0 0, Kyli Horn 3 5-6 14, Brynn Mullet 4 0-0 11, Kelsey Swihart 2 1-2 5, Mallory Stutzman 0 3-4 3, Abby Miller 0 0-0 0, Zoe Miller 4 4-7 13; TOTALS 18 13-20 57; Three-point field goals: 8 (Kyli Horn and Brynn Mullet 3 apiece, Ashley Mullet and Zoe Miller 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