GIRLS BASKETBALL Irish back for more on Value City floor
Sugarcreek Garaway and Castalia have no recent state experience.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Been there, done that.
The Ursuline High girls basketball team has a distinct advantage over two of the teams it might face on the way to a second Division III state championship in three seasons.
Three Irish players have plenty of experience playing on the Value City Arena floor inside Ohio State University's Schottenstein Arena.
Seniors Tyra Grant and Vannessa Dickson were starters two years ago when Ursuline defeated Plain City Jonathan Alder and Oak Hill for the state crown. Another senior, Tiffani Miller, played in those games and has blossomed into what Coach Sean Durkin calls his best defensive player.
Thursday at 6 p.m. in Columbus, the Irish (21-4) will take Sugarcreek Garaway (24-2) in the first state semifinal matchup. At 8 p.m., Plain City Jonathan Alder (24-2) plays Castalia Margaretta (23-3).
The winners will meet Saturday at 2 p.m.
Sugarcreek and Castalia have no recent state tournament experience.
After defeating Garfield Heights Trinity 56-48 Saturday at Cuyahoga Falls, Dickson and Grant recalled how intimidating it is to go from playing in a gymnasium with room for several hundred fans to a college arena with approximately 18,000 seats.
"The gym had thousands and thousands [of seats]," Dickson said. "It's something that you have to zone it all out.
"Our senior class was there in 2004," Dickson said. "We might have a little bit of nerves, but we'll be in a little better position than [Sugarcreek Garaway.]"
Grant said she believes their "experience] helps. The stadium is huge and there are so many people that you feel like they're little specks. It's nice to already have experienced that."
Two years ago after the Irish defeated Alder 59-43 in the state semifinal, Durkin admitted that his team, which was led by Courtney Davidson (Ursuline's first player to score more than 2,000 varsity points), "was obviously a little shaky."
When Davidson was asked if anything could intimidate a player bound for Big Ten Michigan State, the future Spartan replied, "Did you see how big the gym is?"
She added that playing on the Ohio State court was "overwhelming -- all of us were nervous."
Against Alder, Grant scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds while Dickson scored 10. (Then-senior Rebecca Slattery led Ursuline's scoring with 17 points).
In the 66-52 state final victory against Oak Hill, the Irish trailed 31-24 in the second quarter before Durkin unleashed the Irish's run-and-gun offense. Grant scored 22 points, Davidson 21, Slattery nine and Dickson eight.
This year's Irish also might have some jitters on Thursday but they're not likely to affect Grant and Dickson for long.
"I think it helps us that we've been down there before," said Dickson who's weighing a choice of attending Notre Dame College in South Euclid to play basketball and study nursing or attend Kent State University as a nursing student.
"It all goes so fast," Dickson said of state tournament week. "It's not over yet -- we've still got two big games to play."
Grant, who will play for Penn State University next fall, says "We can't afford to overlook anybody because when you get to this point -- the top four in Div. III -- no one's going to be soft and it's all going to be tough teams.
"Just because we've gotten to this position and we're going down to state doesn't mean we're going to win it," Grant said.
The Mahoning Valley's all-time leading scorer (2,245 and counting) has a point, but few would argue that the most feared team in Div. III -- South Euclid Regina -- is idle this week.
Regina has won six of the past seven state titles.
Last Wednesday, Trinity upset Regina, 61-53, in the regional semifinal. And the Irish overcame a 40-37 fourth-quarter deficit to end Trinity's season.
"Everybody at school was excited because we weren't playing Regina, but I told everybody there's a reason we're not playing Regina -- it's Trinity," Durkin said.
Grant admitted she "was shocked just like everybody else. Deep down, [most] felt Trinity wasn't going to make it past Regina.
Panic from press
The key to the fourth-quarter turnaround was Durkin unleashing the Irish defenders into a full-court press that befuddled Trinity into panicked throwaways.
Because of Trinity's speed, Durkin held back on pressing early.
"We were afraid that this team could hurt us if we put too much pressure on them because they have a couple of kids who are [fast as] lightning," Durkin said.
The Irish also overcame unusual shakiness at the foul line.
Nerves affect free throws. Irish cool in that category should surprise no one this weekend in Columbus.