By ED PUSKAS
The offense came and went for Jackson-Milton, but its defense was there for the duration in a Division IV girls basketball district final against McDonald.
The Bluejays used their trademark smothering defense to overwhelm the Blue Devils 36-20 on Saturday to win the first district championship in the program’s history.
Michaelina Terranova scored 14 points and Jackson-Milton forced 32 McDonald turnovers in a game that wasn’t as close as the Bluejays’ two regular-season wins over the Blue Devils.
Jackson-Milton (23-2) won 53-46 on Jan. 7 at McDonald and 47-42 on Jan. 28 in North Jackson.
“Those were real games,” said Terranova, a sophomore who averages 13 points and 4.6 rebounds. “They were up, then we were up. They were back-and-forth games.”
This one? Not so much.
McDonald (20-6) led only once, 2-0 on a jumper by Samamtha Homa 59 seconds into the game after the teams combined for five turnovers.
Jackson-Milton eventually steadied itself on offense. Even if the Bluejays’ shots weren’t falling with regularity, they at least stopped turning it over.
The Blue Devils never did. They racked up 19 turnovers in the first half alone and finished the game averaging a turnover per minute.
“We had a lot of turnovers the first and second times we played them, too,” McDonald coach Amy Dolsak said. “We knew we had to take care of the ball. That was our No. 1 priority.”
But there was a difference between knowing that priority and being able to carry it out against the swarming Bluejays, who pressed throughout, filled the passing lanes and almost never let the Blue Devils settle comfortably into an offensive set.
“This time, we never let up,” Terranova said.
Jackson-Milton will meet Willoughby Cornerstone Christian, which beat Richmond Heights 59-42 to win the Grand Valley district Saturday.
McDonald opened the game with three consecutive turnovers and had 10 by the end of the first quarter when Jackson-Milton somehow led just 10-6. The Bluejays also had a four-point lead — 16-12 — at halftime after shooting just 8 for 23 in the first two quarters.
The Blue Devils were hurt by the loss of Brenna Rupe to a head injury during a second-quarter scrum after a ball got loose.
“They think it’s a concussion,” Dolsak said. “It was important for us to have her out there.”
Without Rupe — one of five McDonald seniors — Jackson-Milton’s defense became even more ferocious.
“Our defense carried us,” Jackson-Milton coach Pat Keney said. “It usually does, but we had to settle into our offense. We told the girls at halftime, ‘We’ve got to look for better shots.’ ”
Jackson-Milton found them early in the third quarter when senior Olivia Wolfe and junior Ashley Totani scored on driving layups. Those baskets extended the Bluejays’ lead to 20-12 in the first minute of the third and a jumper by the latter made it 22-12 at the 4:55 mark of the third.
McDonald — sorely in need of a third-quarter run — never got it and went scoreless to start the second half until Homa made a layup at the 4:22 mark. The Blue Devils trailed just 22-14 then, but the deficit felt much larger. It actually got larger moments later when Jackson-Milton’s Kaitlyn Totani scored her only points of the game on a 3-pointer at the 3:46 mark of the third quarter for a 25-14 lead.
It was the only long-range shot for either team in the game.
The Bluejays maintained a double-digit lead for all but a brief moment the rest of the game. By the time they were cutting down the nets at Mineral Ridge, a one-point loss to Western Reserve in last year’s district final was mostly forgotten.
“That game was mostly in my mind ever since,” Terranova said. “It was really sad to lose by a point last year.”
Jackson-Milton’s defense wasn’t about to allow that to happen again and its offense was good enough this time to make the necessary critical shots. Five players scored in the third, when the Bluejays put the game away with a 14-4 run.
“They knew what it felt like last year when you had shots that didn’t fall in and we lost by one,” Keney said.