By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
ANDOVER TOWNSHIP —
A year ago, Maplewood took something the Pymatuning Valley girls had come to believe was theirs. The Rockets broke the Lakers’ string of 4 consecutive Northeastern Athletic Conference championships in claiming the title as their own.
This season, led by floor general Geena Gabriel and her first lieutenant, Kelsea Brown, the Lakers staged an assault in trying to liberate their title. The mission was wildly successful as the Lakers not only reclaimed their title, with a 56-41 blitzing of the Rockets in front of packed house Wednesday night, but another one, as well. PV claimed the top spot in the Associated Press’ final Division III poll.
“That was a fun game to be a part of,” PV coach Jeff Compan said. “That’s a good win for us going into tournament time.
“The league is really, really good this year. We didn’t win it last year after we had won it 4 straight years. I’m so proud of them. They deserve all the praise they get.”
The Lakers (20-0, 12-0) have now won 5 of the last 6 NAC championships and 6 of the last 8.
“It’s great to win the league,” Gabriel said. “We won it my freshman and sophomore years. Last year, when we lost it to Maplewood, we wanted to come back stronger and win it back.”
“It feels great to won the league, especially after losing it last year,” Brown said. “We wanted to come back and win it again. One of our main goals was to win the league.”
Gabriel and Brown joined forces, as the cousins have for much of their lives, to account for 44 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 10 steals and a block in their conquest of Maplewood.
Brown led the way with 26 points, 4 boards, an assist and 3 steals, while Gabriel had a strong overall night with 18 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 7 steals and a blocked shot.
“Kelsea and I are cousins,” Gabriel said. “We’ve always played together. We have a bond I’m able to see when she’s going to be open and she knows how to make a cut so she’s able to score of my passes.”
“Geena and I have been playing together for a long time,” Brown said. “She can give me a look and I know where to go or when to make my cut.”
Leading, 22-18, at the half, PV steadily put some distance between themselves and Maplewood, leading 39-30 heading into the final period.
“We didn’t make a lot of mistakes, but the ones we were making, they capitalized on,” Maplewood coach Mark Yoder said. “They made a few, as well, but we weren’t able to capitalize on them.”
Brown netted 9 of the Lakers’ 17 points in the quarter.
“I think that 3 that Kelsea hit right out of halftime gave us a little pep,” Compan said.
The Rockets (18-3, 11-3) actually had their deficit down to 4, 42-38 with 3:50 left in the game following Miranda Sloan’s layup and two buckets from Brooke Dawson.
Just as quickly as that advantage shrunk for PV, it swelled back to 10 behind a pair of free throws and a layup from Brown and a steal and layup from Gabriel.
Pymatuning Valley closed the game on a 14-3 run over the final 4 minutes.
Between them, Gabriel — who had struggled from the line early — and Brown were a perfect 10 of 10 from the charity stripe in the final 3:39 of the contest. Gabriel had 6 attempts while Brown had 4.
“In the fourth quarter, we did nothing but make mistakes,” Maplewood coach Mark Yoder said. “They took advantage of every one of the mistakes we made in the fourth. I told the girls at the half that whoever made the least mistakes was going to win. PV’s a good enough team and they’re well coached. They take advantage when you mess up.”
Just a trio of Lakers attempted free throws, but they were the right trio as each one of them individually made and attempted more charity tosses than the entire Maplewood team.
Brown was 8 of 8 from the line, Gabriel, after starting 2 of 6, was 8 of 12 and Megan Stech was 4 of 6.
Brooke Dawson contributed all of Maplewood’s free-throw attempts in a 3 of 5 effort.
The squads traded buckets through the first 8 minutes with the Lakers emerging from the period with an 11-8 lead. The Rockets, however, opened the second quarter with a 10-0 run behind a pair of 3-pointers from Sloan, 2 free throws from Dawson and a bucket from Ryley Urchek. Maplewood led, 18-11 with 5:55 to play in the half.
The Lakers erased that gap and actually went into the intermission up, 22-18, following an 11-0 run that lasted 5 minutes.
“We talked the whole night about not letting them go on an extended run,” Compan said. “They scored the first 8 or 10 in a row in the second quarter. We got a timeout and not only did we come back, we led at the half.”
Gabriel netted 5 of those points, Brown had 4 and Stech had 2.
Pymatuning Valley was 18 of 38 (47.4 percent) from the field and turned the ball over just 14 times. The Rockets were 17 of 41 (41.5 percent) from the field and turned the ball over 25 times.
“With 25 turnovers, the other team is going to shoot 50 percent,” Yoder said. “They’re getting layups. Those are high-percentage opportunities. Usually, we’re able to do that. They play good defense. They’ve got some good, athletic players who get hands on passes to force turnovers. They were able to get down the floor and take advantage.”
Sloan led Maplewood with 17 points and Dawson had 13.
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.