By Greg Gulas
Sam Mathias is in his second season as the United girls’ basketball coach and already has two consecutive district championships to his credit.
It’s a regional crown, however, on which his team is presently focused for the school trophy case.
Mackenzie Gatchel scored a game-high 26 points, including five buckets from beyond the arc while Emily Zehentbaur added 14 points to pace United to a 57-33 victory on Saturday over Champion as they defended their Division III district crown at Mineral Ridge High School.
They will meet Orrville at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Cuyahoga Falls.
Orrville defeated Canton Central Catholic, 58-51, in the Wooster district championship game to punch their ticket to regional action.
“We’ve been on a mission since last year when Smithville eliminated us in the regional semi-finals,” Mathias said.
“We wanted to put ourselves in position to be here in order to get back to there. We had a little more pressure on us to repeat, but this is a veteran group that kept their composure the entire game; even when Champion closed to within three points a minute before halftime. They’re supposed to do that.”
Gatchel scored 12 of her 26 points in the opening quarter, all from beyond the arc, as United (24-2) built a 16-10 advantage.
At one point Champion (16-10) had eight turnovers and just seven points at the 3:28 mark.
“I came ready to play and was on and since I love shooting threes, I was in a rhythm so I just kept on shooting,” Gatchel said. “They’re a fundamentally sound team that plays the ball. This was without a doubt the best that I have ever shot from the field.”
Gatchel’s fifth and final triple at 4:25 of the second period increased the Golden Eagles’ lead to a 21-12, but five points from Gabby Lamont fueled a 6-0 run by the Golden Flashes as they pulled to within 21-18 with a little over a minute before intermission.
A triple by Zehentbaur then helped United close with a 6-0 run of their own as they took a 27-18 lead at half.
“Their 6-0 run at the end of the first half turned into an 11-0 run to begin the third quarter and that was a huge turnaround. You pick your poison with them by either playing hard core man-to-man or zone,” Golden Flashes coach Jeff Thompson said.
A stingy Golden Eagles defense held Champion to just eight points after intermission, while seven points by Zehentbaur and a triple by Sam Spitler helped United increase their margin to 42-26 after three.
“Being able to defend their outside shooters and post play was big for us today. We had a lot more pressure on us this year to repeat as district champs so it’s really a great feeling to now be moving on to regional play,” Zehentbaur stated.
Seven points by Gatchel helped United close the game with a 13-3 run as they won for the 17 consecutive outing. It has now been 58 days since their last loss, a 58-45 setback at West Branch.
United, which held a 24-21 rebound advantage, will enter regional action having won 45 of their last 51 contests over the past two seasons.
The loss snapped Champion’s six-game win streak.