Mercer, West Branch turn the tables in win over Blue Devils
BERLIN CENTER — When Western Reserve’s Olivia Pater tossed in a layup off a feed from senior Danielle Vuletich with less than a minute to go in the third quarter, things started to look up for a Blue Devils team that hadn’t found a lead over West Branch before halftime.
Warriors junior Sydney Mercer had something to say about that.
Her message to the Blue Devils was pretty direct — her 10 points and stellar defense during the final 10 minutes of play helped West Branch outscore Western Reserve by 11 in the quarter, and the Warriors pulled away with a 46-35 road victory.
As the Warriors leading scorer and rebounder, she knew she had to take over.
“Well, I realized that I had to turn it on and play my best basketball because Western Reserve isn’t one to mess around,” she said. “They’re a good basketball program, so we knew we had to go out there and play our hardest we could.”
After the Blue Devils tied the contest at 25, Mercer started off the fourth with a score off a steal, with senior Bella Laut following up to make it 29-25 in favor of the Warriors. Pater retaliated for the Blue Devils (8-4) to cut it back down to one, but Mercer found the bottom of the net twice in a row to kick off a 13-2 run, with fellow junior Anna Lippiatt extending the lead on an and-1 conversion.
A major key in the Warriors’ victory was their ability to keep Vuletich, a Robert Morris commit, off the boards, a job primarily tasked to a pair of freshmen in the form of Livvie Showalter and Sophie Gregory.
“(Our game plan) was just to keep her out,” Gregory said. “But I really couldn’t have done it without any of my teammates helping on the others girls because it really opened the floor for me.”
Gregory had a layup to kick off the second half and begin a 7-0 run, along with talling six out of her eight points after halftime.
“I think my confidence has grown throughout the season because my teammates have really helped me with it,” she said. “But definitely during the game, they’ve encouraged me to shoot the ball more.”
It hasn’t been the easiest freshman campaign for Gregory, but West Branch coach Walt DeShields has seen tons of growth.
“She’s a talent, everybody can see it,” he said. “Early in the year, it was confidence, and what a great talent she is, and we had to bump her down to JV.”
“She probably played JV the last three weeks or so, and we saw her getting the confidence back at the JV level. She’s a scorer, she’s a player. I think the turning point for her really was in the Salem game. She played OK in that game and just better and really had a game against Marlington even though we lost, and tonight she had a great game.”
After starting off the season 6-0, Western Reserve has now dropped four of its last six contests.
Blue Devils coach Steve Miller scheduled quality non-conference opponents such as Poland, Margaretta, and West Branch.
“I think if you’re not playing good against some of these better teams, you’re in trouble, and that’s why I said I didn’t feel real good coming in,” he said. “We have several things that we need to work on, and tonight win or lose, we basically just said let’s try to accomplish a couple of those things.
“We did some of those for a while. Our transition defense has been horrible, our communication has been horrible, our passing and decision making has been horrible, and at crucial points today when they ramped up the pressure, you saw that again tonight.”
Mercer finished with a game-high 15 for West Branch (12-4), with senior Jillian Pidgeon adding nine. A pair of Blue Devils hit double figures as Vuletich and Pater scored 13 and 11, respectively.
As the regular season moves along, DeShields sees the pieces falling into place for the Warriors.
“Roles always get established throughout the year, and we’re still moving people around. We’re a different team than we were at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Just watching tape and watching us in practice, we keep improving. We got some freshmen playing for us, and our seniors are doing a nice job leading, and our juniors are playing really well.”