By Tom Williams
With about 2 minutes to play in a back-and-forth game, United senior Sam Spitler scored a basket to give her Golden Eagles the lead against state-ranked Orrville in Wednesday night’s Division III regional semifinal at Cuyahoga Falls High School.
But those were the last points the Eagles scored as the Red Riders’ Maggie Davault and Hannah Plybon powered a 10-0 run down the stretch for a 61-52 victory.
“It was the most exciting game I’ve ever been in,” United junior MacKenzie Gatchel said. “It was so close.”
“We both had chances [late],” said Gatchel who scored 11 points. “Theirs hit and ours didn’t.”
Twice, the Eagles overcame huge deficits to regain the lead.
“That was the best basketball we’ve ever played, hands down,” senior Emily Zehentbauer said after scoring 20 points, including four 3-pointers. “We played amazing.”
Zehentbauer called the fourth quarter an “awesome” experience.
“We just played our hardest,” Zehentbauer said.
Sam Mathias, United’s second-year head coach, said he was pleased that his girls played so much better than last year’s 45-29 regional semifinal loss to Smithville.
“We knew we were going to have to play our best game of the season when we got here,” Mathias said. “I think we did — that’s the best absolutely we can play.
“I’m not ashamed of these girls at all. They went toe-for-toe with one of the best state-ranked teams. Can’t be more proud of them.”
The Eagles (24-3), winner of the Mineral Ridge district for the second straight season, started slowly against the Red Riders (25-2), falling behind 10-2.
But momentum shifted when Tara Gray and Zehentbauer hit 3-pointers on consecutive shots.
Trailing 28-23 at halftime, the Eagles were again in trouble when Davault hit a 3-pointer in the opening seconds of the third quarter.
Plybon, who surpassed 2,000 points in the Red Riders’ district championship win over Canton Central Catholic, later hit a bucket for 35-24 lead.
The Eagles did not wilt. A 7-0 run capped by a Gatchel basket sliced the Red Riders’ lead to 36-34.
Then Zehentbauer opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer to give the Eagles a 45-43 lead. The scoreboard seesawed until the Red Riders’ final surge.
“That’s why they are state-ranked,” Mathias said. “They hit those big shots at the end.”
Davault led the Red Riders with 22 points while Plybon contributed 18 points and 10 rebounds.
United senior Mollie Phillis, who missed last season with a knee injury, was impressed with how loud the fans were in the old gymnasium.
“The crowd was very intense,” Phillis said. “That was probably the most intense game I’ve ever played. It’s indescribable.
“We were with them punch-for-punch, but it just came down to whose shot was falling [in the end].”
Spitler scored 10 points. She’s one of six Eagles who will be lost to graduation.
“This group showed what kind of hard work it’s going to take,” said Mathias of advancing to a regional final. “This year, we [showed that we] had the confidence that we could play [here].”