By Tom Williams
Overcoming early foul trouble, the Ursuline High girls basketball team had a trip to Columbus within their reach late in the third quarter of Saturday’s Division III regional final at Cuyahoga Falls High School.
But in the final quarter, the Irish were unable to contain Elyria Catholic’s Emily Taylor and Brittany McNamara who led the Panthers to their first state trip with a 50-41 victory.
“We had one quarter of basketball to win and we couldn’t do it,” Ursuline coach Sean Durkin said. “This was a team that we were hoping would get to this point, to get this opportunity. That makes it a little more disappointing.”
Taylor’s 14 points included six free throws in the fourth quarter when McNamara contributed a basket and two free throws for the Panthers (24-2).
“They were a little more physical than [we thought],” said Durkin of the Panthers. “Taylor played a whale of a game, she dominated offensively in stretches.
“We tried to limit her as much as we could, but great players step up in these situations,” Durkin said.
The Irish (17-8) were in trouble early when junior post player Courtney Powell picked up two personal fouls in the first four minutes and sophomore point guard Aurielle Irizarry had two before the first quarter ended.
Powell sat for the rest of the half as senior Ja’Niece Whitehead and sophomore Sydney Beasley played well defensively to keep the Panthers’ taller players from taking over the game.
“They were undersized as far as watching the kids they had to [guard],” Durkin said of Whitehead and Beasley. “They battled and they kept us in there with Courtney playing about three minutes in the first half.
“If you would have told me [in advance] that it was 18-18 [under those circumstances], I would have liked our chances,” Durkin said.
Late in the second quarter, Ashley Schuster’s basket gave the Panthers an 18-13 lead. Beasley countered with a 3-pointer and Whitehead scored from underneath to give the Irish the halftime tie.
Whitehead said she knew her responsibility increased because of Powell’s absence.
“Like we said when we came here, we’re a family, when we have a teammate down, we pick each other up,” Whitehead said. “That’s what families do.”
Had the Irish struggled in the second quarter, Durkin said he would have sent Powell back into the game.
“If I had to pull the trigger on that, I would have, if it looked like it might start to get away from us,” Durkin said. “Sydney and Ja’Niece did a great job of holding the fort down.”
The Irish and Panthers were tied 28-28 when Powell picked up her third foul late in the third quarter. McNamara’s 3-pointer closed the quarter with Elyria Catholic ahead, 33-29.
McNamara’s steal and layup combined with two free throws by Schuster doubled the lead to eight points, forcing the Irish to take desperation shots.
In the next minute, Whitehead and Powell each earned their fourth fouls.
Irizarry hit a 3-pointer with five-and-a-half minutes remaining to slice the Panthers’ lead to 39-36.
But that’s as close as the Irish would get as the Panthers surged.
“They are a very good basketball team. They came to play,” Whitehead said. “So did we, but we came up short today.”
Beasley finished with 14 rebounds.
Whitehead is the lone starter not returning next season. Ursuline’s other seniors are Brittany Curd, Shantel Boss and Rakia Levesque.
“We wanted to go far,” said Whitehead fighting back tears. “The juniors and sophomores are just as well-rounded. We’re very disciplined and I think that’s what made our team this year.”