WAVERLY — If you ask Alaina Keeney, her hug from teammate Madison Whittaker following Saturday’s Division III district semifinal could have meant one of two wide-ranging emotions.
It could have been one of sadness because it ended, or it could have been one of overjoy because it indeed happened.
Either way, Keeney clutched Whittaker with both arms —and the two celebrated, along with the remainder of the Lady Pirates, a basketball win amid lore which Wheelersburg will never, EVER, forget.
That’s because the senior standout and surefire all-Ohioan Keeney caught an inbounds pass on the run, drove the length of the court with five seconds remaining, and put up a shot which took not one, not two, but three precarious bounces before finally dropping in — lifting the undefeated and top-seeded Lady Pirates a heart-stopping 42-40 triumph over eighth-seeded North Adams inside Waverly’s Downtown Arena.
That’s right, you read correct —Keeney caught the ball basically, and completely in fact, unguarded en route to racing downfloor for the runner of a winner.
The game was tied at 40-40 with 4.8 seconds to be exact, as Lexie Rucker triggered an inbounds pass —as the Green Devils’ deep Laney Ruckel three-pointer rimmed off with 10 seconds remaining.
Rucker found a wide-open Keeney in stride up the court’s left side, as Keeney dribbled left-handed — before shooting with her right.
With the three high-wire bounces on the loose Waverly rims, she got the shot to fall as the buzzer sounded — setting off a wild celebration in which Keeney was mobbed by her teammates near the Wheelersburg bench.
On the other end, North Adams had been bedeviled, as Keeney even exorcised some team demons — from the Green Devils’ district semifinal win over Wheelersburg two years ago.
Keeney couldn’t recall ever hitting a game-winner before, but what a time to make some more Lady Pirate history with her first.
Wheelersburg — the wire-to-wire Division III Associated Press poll champion for 2022 — raised its perfect record to 22-0, and kept its dream season alive.
“The play was just kind of a get-the-ball-in play, but I knew I had to get it done for them (teammates) to move on. I didn’t want my season to end today,” said Keeney.
She also explained her surprise of no Lady Green Devil defending her.
“We were supposed to set some screens, but no one was even on me. I yelled for Lexie to get it in to me, so I got it and just took it,” continued Keeney. “Makenna (Walker) was there on the back side, but the girl was playing her, so I just decided to take the shot. Thankfully, it fell.”
Wheelersburg veteran coach Dusty Spradlin expanded further —with the timeout taken instructing Rucker to inbound, and not Keeney.
“Gotta give Alaina some credit here,” he said. “Alaina had been taking the ball out of bounds pretty much the whole game. We let her be in the box set, and once she had an advantage, and she is able to catch it and go, we’re going to live with whatever decision she makes. Whether that’s a two-dribble and catch-and-shoot or dumping it off. Got a nice bounce, and it’s one of those that it hits the rim the first time, you kind of know it’s going in.”
Keeney had a similar situation at the end of regulation when Wheelersburg defeated visiting Vinton County (53-50) in overtime on Jan. 15 —but that buzzer-beating attempt off a runner in the lane didn’t drop.
However, with the basketball gods —and her teammates —with her on Saturday, this one did.
“Had it gone into overtime, we know we’re pretty good at getting the job done,” said Keeney. “I believe in my teammates, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
For Spradlin, this song and dance has played plenty of times this season before.
Break down the game via Xs and Os all you want, but these Lady Pirates persevere —and survive and advance —in the end.
“Since game one, these kids have found different ways to win. That’s what is so rewarding about this team,” said Spradlin. “North Adams plays a style that we’re not used to seeing. They are physical, they press, they speed you up, and obviously they are very comfortable playing that way, which is very fast. There were times we just got going too fast and over-dribbled, or attacked off the first pass instead of attacking off the second or third pass. But we find a way to win and survive and advance.”
And, it was another affair in which Wheelersburg endured its rough patches, with only 33 shot attempts and 25 turnovers, as there were four ties and 10 lead changes —including the Green Devils opening up a 17-10 advantage only a minute and eight seconds into the second stanza.
But, the gong — or rather the cannon — went off first for the Lady Pirates right there and then, with Keeney splitting a pair of free throws, Whittaker swishing back-to-back three-pointers, and finally Rucker landing a trifecta at exactly the five-minute mark to cap 10 unanswered.
When Wheelersburg did shoot, it was a 50-50 chance —as the Lady Pirates posted a 51-and-a-half percent clip on 17-of-33.
“Huge stretch right there. We shot the ball really well in that stretch. As much as we tried to prepare the kids for this is the way the game is going to be, it’s still difficult to simulate that speed. It took us a while to settle in and get used to the speed and physicality,” said Spradlin. “But that was a good stretch there that we needed.”
From a 24-23 halftime edge, the Lady Pirates opened up a 32-27 lead halfway through the third quarter —only to see North Adams answer with a 13-8 run over the next eight minutes, and finally stake a 40-38 lead on a Sierra Kendall layup.
However, those points — with 4:07 remaining —where North Adams’ last.
Makenna Walker, with six second-half points as part of her nine, drove to the cup with 1:14 to go —and scored for the 40-40 tie.
A minute and four seconds later, Ruckel rained a top-of-the key trey try, but it rimmed off and ricocheted long —going out of bounds to the Lady Pirates.
From there, in the final five seconds, it was Keeney’s contest to win or lose.
Speaking of five, she only had five points —but did grab five rebounds and dished out five assists.
Rucker racked up 15 points on seven total field goals, while Walker and Whittaker netted nine points and three rebounds apiece —with Whittaker’s three triples including her first in the opening salvo.
Macee Eaton added four points on a third-quarter deuce and 2-of-2 fourth-frame foul shots —as Walker went 1-of-2 in the second quarter, while making three steals as two of those were tie-ups which went Wheelersburg’s way.
Eaton had a team-high seven rebounds, as the Lady Pirates edged the Green Devils 28-24 —while forcing North Adams into 29-and-a-half percent shooting (13-of-44), and even 18 turnovers of their own.
“Our defense is pretty good too,” commented a confident Keeney. “We’re just tougher than other teams to be honest. We forced a lot of turnovers too. Everybody that plays us hasn’t seen a team like us either.”
As part of the Lady Green Devils’ seven threes, Ruckel and Morgan Shupert splashed two apiece —as Ruckel paced North Adams with a dozen points, including a perfect 6-of-6 free throws.
She also stuffed the stat sheet for seven rebounds and five steals.
North Adams ended its season at 18-6 —with two of its four losses to Eastern Brown and Leesburg Fairfield in the Southern Hills Athletic Conference.
Speaking of Fairfield, the fourth-seeded Lady Lions are on tap for the Lady Pirates on Friday evening —in one of two Division III district championship tilts.
Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Waverly’s Downtown Arena.
Perhaps this time again, Keeney and Whittaker will hug each other in celebration of another district title —because, quite frankly, neither them nor the remainder of the Lady Pirates want this dream season to end.
“Just the resiliency of this group and finding different ways to win, it speaks a lot to these kids’ character and want-to,” said Spradlin. “These kids have been bought-in since day one, and they want what’s best for the whole group. This is a ‘team’ in every aspect of the word. And we’re still playing for district championship.”
* * *
North Adams 12 11 7 10 —40
Wheelersburg 10 14 8 10 — 42
NORTH ADAMS 40 (18-6)
Morgan Shupert 2 0-0 6, Sierra Kendall 1 1-2 3, Ainsley Grooms 1 0-0 2, Keetyn Hupp 4 0-2 9, Laney Ruckel 2 6-6 12, Harlee Brand 0 0-0 0, Kenlie Jones 1 0-0 3, Lizzie Gill 2 0-0 5, Sydney Figgins 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 13 7-10 40; Three-point field goals: 7 (Morgan Shupert and Laney Ruckel 2 apiece, Keetyn Hupp, Kenlie Jones and Lizzie Gill 1 apiece)
WHEELERSBURG 42 (22-0)
Jocelyn Tilley 0 0-0 0, Madison Whittaker 3 0-0 9, Annie Coriell 0 0-0 0, Kiera Kennard 0 0-0 0, Alaina Keeney 2 1-2 5, Makenna Walker 4 1-2 9, Lexie Rucker 7 0-0 15, Macee Eaton 1 2-2 4; TOTALS 17 4-6 42 ; Three-point field goals: 4 (Madison Whittaker 3, Lexie Rucker 1)
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