SVSM weathers West Branch’s hot start in upset victory
By CAMERON HOOVER
Akron Beacon Journal
Things looked bleak for coach Carley Whitney’s Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary girls basketball team for most of the first quarter of its 50-47 victory over previously unbeaten West Branch in a Division II regional semifinal Tuesday night at Barberton High School.
The Warriors (25-1) started out shooting 5-for-5 from the field, including two 3-pointers from sophomore guard Peyton Alazaus, to open a 12-0 lead in the first six minutes of the game.
Whitney knew something had to change, so she quickly made substitutions.
The changes immediately paid off. St. Vincent-St. Mary went on a 20-7 run to take a one-point halftime lead. The Fighting Irish extended the lead to eight after the third quarter.
“When I substitute players, I don’t lose much,” Whitney said. “The second unit kind of steadied the ship and got us back to where we needed to be. They put us in a position to get back, and that is the perfect definition of a second unit.”
West Branch came into the fourth quarter playing with urgency. Sophomore guard Morgan Hovorka (team-high 13 points, all in the second half) went on a personal 8-0 run to cut the Fighting Irish lead to two.
Hannah Ridgway made a layup to put West Branch ahead 39-37 with 3:54 left. It was the Warriors’ first lead since an 18-17 advantage with 2:03 left in the second quarter.
Just as quickly as the Warriors had built the momentum, St. Vincent-St. Mary guard Jada Haines (game-high 18 points) knocked down her fourth 3-pointer of the night to give the Fighting Irish (19-7) a one-point lead and silencing the raucous West Branch crowd.
The teams traded free throws down the stretch, and Alazaus missed a 3-pointer to tie the score with 3.1 seconds left.
The Fighting Irish dribbled out the clock and will play the winner of Tuesday’s late game between Gilmour Academy and Bay Village Bay in the regional final at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Barberton.
Despite the loss, West Branch coach Walt DeShields said he was pleased with his team’s effort and desire to win, citing the team’s 10-for-10 fourth-quarter free-throw shooting as a sign of its toughness.
“We made our free throws, and that helped us get back in the game,” DeShields said. “To take the lead, you have to be proud of that. As a coach, I have nothing but pride for this team.”
As the noise surrounding the Warriors’ final game of the season died down, DeShields took a moment to reflect on his graduating class, while also looking forward to the future.
“We’re going to miss these seniors,” DeShields said. “We’ve got a lot of good girls coming back. They’re going to have to work extremely hard in the offseason to get better. They can’t rest on what they got this year.”
Whitney credited her team’s defensive toughness as the main reason the Fighting Irish were able to gut out the win. They were able to force 10 Warriors turnovers during the first-half comeback
“We make mistakes,” Whitney said. “But when all the cards were on the table, we really showed some heart and some grit tonight. We’re just defensive-minded. At the end of the day, we just have girls who trust in each other and believe in each other and get after it. As simple as it might sound, we just played defense.”