WHEELERSBURG — Perhaps Cupid shot his proverbial arrow right smack dab in the Lady Pirates’ direction.
That’s because, following the opening quarter of Monday night’s Division III girls basketball sectional championship tilt, there was indeed a lot of love to the way Wheelersburg played.
The undefeated Lady Pirates only allowed 19 Ironton points over the final three quarters, never trailed for the game’s final 23 minutes and 52 seconds, and eventually —and ultimately —pulled away for the program’s eighth consecutive sectional title, and its 17th in the last three decades.
Wheelersburg won over the visiting Lady Fighting Tigers for the second time this season — doubling up Ironton over the final three stanzas 40-19 for a 53-32 triumph in Pirate Country.
The Lady Pirates — now 21-0 — only extended their sectional championship consecutive winning streak, as they also won five in a row from 2007 thru 2011.
But this is now eight, and all under the direction of longtime Wheelersburg coach Dusty Spradlin —and also comes with the added pressure of not only being undefeated, but also being the Southeast District’s Division III top-seeded squad.
Oh, and by the way, by being atop each and every single of seven Associated Press Division III statewide polls, the Lady Pirates are officially —as announced on Tuesday —your 2022 Division III AP poll champions.
However, as Spradlin and the Lady Pirates will of course explain, basketball games are indeed won on the court —and not in the opinions of voting pollsters.
Following three significant graduation losses of veteran starters Kaylee Darnell, Lauren Jolly and Ellie Kallner —these Lady Pirates have conducted business differently, but in their own unique and overly effective way.
While Wheelersburg — already the outright champion again — still has to play at Waverly in a Southern Ohio Conference Division II makeup matchup, an undefeated season will be the proud program’s historic first.
The Lady Pirates are in fact the defending Division III Region 11 runners-up — to 2021 state champion Hiland.
“We’ve never had a team go through undefeated on the girls side, and it makes me feel good for these kids. We lost a lot of talent from last year. Those were three that played a lot of basketball. But to see these kids come out and do this, and they’ve done it different from that group last year, it’s just so rewarding to see them put in all this hard work and believe in each other,” said Spradlin. “They just want it to keep going as long as possible.”
It will at least go on all this week —and could continue into next week as well, as the Lady Pirates play next on Saturday against 18-5 and eighth-seeded North Adams in the district semifinals.
The host Green Devils defeated ninth-seeded Coal Grove on Monday night in another sectional title tilt —taking that one 40-32.
For Ironton, and its only senior Alba Gonzalez, it ended up at 10-13 —and advanced to play the Lady Pirates after edging Minford 48-40 in Thursday’s semifinal.
In fact, with Wheelersburg winning the non-league regular-season matchup 51-31 on Dec. 30, Monday’s meeting — per Spradlin — seemed to play out as that one did.
The Fighting Tigers took a 9-8 edge after that opening salvo, as Evan Williams was responsible for all 13 Ironton points in Monday’s first quarter —including a three-point goal sandwiched around a pair of old-fashioned three-point plays.
Through five first-quarter lead changes, and two ties at 7-7 and 13-13, Wheelersburg and Ironton stood deadlocked — before it was Wheelersburg all the way from there.
“They were ahead of us at the end of the first quarter in our first game. So they can be a tough matchup, especially when they are making shots because they are able to spread the floor and Evan (Williams) can get to the basket. There has to be that balance where you are in help position to eliminate some of her driving lanes, but you can’t just give up wide-open shots. I didn’t want to give her 13 points in that first quarter, but we made some adjustments. I thought our kids did a good job on the fly of trying to trap her some, trying to deny her some, and trying to wear her out a little bit,” said Spradlin. “Sometimes, that first tournament game is harder than the others. I thought our kids did a good job of weathering the storm and taking some punches. It’s what we’ve done all year. We’ve been able to play through some of that, and are still able to come out on top.”
Once Wheelersburg went on top, there was no bottom end of the heart on this Valentine’s Day night.
A mere 52 seconds into the second stanza, Alaina Keeney grabbed a defensive rebound and canned a transition three-pointer from the top of the key —and the Lady Pirates went ahead 16-13.
Makenna Walker, with a dozen first-half points as part of her game-high 20, then stole a pass and drove in all the way for a layup —converting a three-point play for a six-point lead.
Ironton did get a trifecta from Kristen Williams and two Teegan Carpenter free throws for a 19-18 deficit at the 4:54 mark —but a corner-pocket three-ball and a two-point drive by Annie Coriell kicked the Lady Pirate lead back to six (26-20) just a minute and 14 seconds later.
The Lady Pirates then held the Fighting Tigers scoreless over the next three minutes —amassing their largest margin of the opening half at 31-20.
Carpenter connected on a triple to make it 31-23 with 25 seconds to play, but the Lady Pirates played superb and lockdown defense from there —only allowing nine second-half markers, including Ironton’s only third-period points on a Chasity Cecil basket with 3:45 left.
By then, Wheelersburg built its first of three 16-point (37-23, 41-25 and 43-27) cushions —before eventually upping the margin to its largest at 51-30.
Ironton’s Isabel Morgan with four fourth-canto counters, and three more from Carpenter for her eight, were the Lady Fighting Tigers’ only other points in the entire second half.
While Wheelersburg had in part to play poorly in order for the underdog Fighting Tigers to win, Ironton’s best avenue to victory was its three-point shooting —but it made 3-of-20 for an icy 15-percent.
The Lady Pirates held a 24-11 total field goals advantage, and shot 49-percent (24-of-49) to the Fighting Tigers’ 24 (11-of-45).
For Williams, her only other points past her sizzling opening quarter was a basket at the second stanza’s four-minute mark.
“This is about what we did to them in the first game, only it was the second quarter then that we held them to two or three points. Tonight it was the third quarter we had a really good defensive quarter,” said Spradlin.
The Fighting Tigers turned it over 12 times to the Lady Pirates’ six, only made one steal to Wheelersburg’s nine, and were outrebounded 31-18 while Wheelersburg was attacking the basket through the paint area and on the baseline.
Against Ironton’s zone defense, the Lady Pirates’ points in the paint were plentiful —with Walker making nine shots on 16 attempts, and meshing 2-of-4 second-quarter free throws for her 20.
Lexie Rucker recorded 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting —as the Lady Pirates’ prolific three-point assault only consisted of made first-half threes by Madison Whittaker, Keeney and Coriell.
Whittaker and Keeney chipped in two twos towards seven points apiece, Coriell finished with five and Macee Eaton added two field goals —as Keeney, Rucker and Eaton all had six rebounds.
Keeney dished out five of the club’s 14 assists, as Spradlin praised his Lady Pirates’ offensive effort in going directly right at the rim.
“I thought our kids settled down, started to make a few shots and did a good job taking care of the ball,” said the coach. “And we finally got some of those layup opportunities where we either attacked the middle or the baseline. We kept telling them that they had chances to do that. It just took them a while to see it and do it.”
Or, perhaps, Cupid and his arrow didn’t find their Lady Pirates’ mark until after the opening quarter.
At any rate, the Orange and Black are back in their eighth consecutive district semifinals —facing a North Adams unit which knocked them off two years ago in the same round.
Tip time on Saturday is set for 1 p.m. —inside Waverly’s historic and fantastic Downtown Arena.
“We’re going to have to play well. North Adams is a very good team. When you get to the district level, you shouldn’t be caught off-guard that you’re going to have to play a good game,” said Spradlin. “The challenges only get tougher from here on out, but I am sure our kids will be ready.”
* * *
Ironton 13 10 2 7 —32
Wheelersburg 13 18 10 12 — 53
IRONTON 32 (10-13)
Peyton Deer 0 0-0, Alba Gonzalez 0 0-0 0, Evan Williams 6 2-2 15, Teegan Carpenter 2 3-4 8, Mary Lackey 0 0-0 0, Chasity Cecil 1 0-0 2, Kristen Williams 1 0-0 3, Laney Morgan 0 0-0 0, Katelyn Cecil 0 0-0 0, Isabel Morgan 1 2-2 4, Emerson White 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 11 7-8 32; Three-point field goals: 3 (Evan Williams, Teegan Carpenter and Kristen Williams 1 apiece)
WHEELERSBURG 53 (21-0)
Jocelyn Tilley 0 0-0 0, Madison Whittaker 3 0-0 7, Annie Coriell 2 0-0 5, Lyndsay Heimbach 0 0-0 0, Kiera Kennard 0 0-0 0, Grace Charles 0 0-0 0, Alaina Keeney 3 0-0 7, Isabella Hamilton 0 0-0 0, Makenna Walker 9 2-4 20, Lexie Rucker 5 0-2 10, Macee Eaton 2 0-0 4, Mika Jones 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 24 2-6 53; Three-point field goals: 3 (Madison Whittaker, Annie Coriell and Alaina Keeney 1 apiece)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved