Russo, Bland hit often, spark Spartans to title
Boardman's two aces accounted for all but two points, as the Spartans clinched the SVC crown.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- It would be safe to say that Ashlee Russo and Amber Bland contributed to the Boardman High basketball team's Steel Valley Conference championship-clinching victory at Ursuline.
The duo's strong effort doesn't come as a surprise -- Russo and Bland have been leading the Spartans all season.
But Thursday, they scored all but two points of a 56-41 win against the Irish as Boardman captured its eighth straight SVC title. Fitch won the crown in 1994.
"That was our first goal," Boardman coach Ron Moschella said of the conference title. "Our second goal is to go as far as we can in the tournament, and you know where that's at."
1-2 punch: Russo, a senior headed to Youngstown State next season, had a game-high 28 points, while the sophomore Bland totaled 26. Jen Hlebovy scored Boardman's only other bucket.
"The other kids are smart enough to get rebounds and play defense. It's a team effort," Moschella said. "But they [Russo and Bland] are pretty hard to stop."
Russo and Bland admitted their role on the team is to score.
"We have Brittany [Durkin] who plays excellent defense, and we have Lauren [Craig], Meagan [Murray] and Jen [Hlebovy] who rebound and play defense," Russo said.
Not only did Russo and Bland provide the offense, but their effort late in the game helped to hold off Ursuline (11-5, 4-2), which was within four points twice in the final two minutes.
"Ursuline made a run at us in the second half and we withstood it," Moschella said. "We came back and did some real smart things offensively."
Play of game: Bland drove from one end of the court to the other, scored a lay-up and a foul for a three-point play to bump Boardman's lead to seven points with 1:31 remaining. Moschella called it the play of the game from the player of the year.
"I just saw different lanes" open up during the game, Bland said. "I just knew I could take it."
Ursuline coach Sean Durkin said, "Amber Bland causes so many problems. She's so athletic. We couldn't really stop her off the penetration, and she elevates so well. She's just a tough match-up for anybody."
After sophomore Courtney Davidson, who led Ursuline with 26 points, made three consecutive free throws to bring her team within four points again at 1:24, Russo stepped to the line to end all doubt.
Free throws: She made 9-of-10 free throws down the stretch, 10-of-12 in the fourth quarter and 13-of-15 for the game, allowing the Spartans to enjoy another SVC title.
"It feels like we're supposed to be here," Russo said. "If we didn't win the SVC, it would be the worst year. Our first goal was SVC, and we got it. One down."
Ursuline stayed close throughout the game but could never provide enough punch to overtake Boardman (15-1, 7-0).
"We had a couple of chances to quit, if we wanted," Durkin said. "We just couldn't get over that hump."
Davidson, the Irish's sensational guard, made a number of tough shots, but she seemed to be affected by Boardman's defense.
"This is where we're peaking right now. We're playing our best ball," Russo said. "Now we're getting ready for the tournament."