By ERIC FORTUNE
For the Star Beacon
MINERAL RIDGE —
A lot of times, records can be deceiving.
Though more often that not, what separates two teams is the opportunities they take advantage of.
Unfortunately for the Pymatuning Valley Lakers, they struggled from the fre- throw line — a place they been at 65 percent at all year — until Thursday night, as they fell to the Champion Golden Flashes, 51-49, in a Division III district semifinal. Sixth-seeded Champion will play top-seeded United — a 50-29 winner against fourth-seeded Girard in Thursday’s nightcap — in the district championship game Saturday afternoon.
“We had a few dry spells in the third quarter and that was the difference,” Pymatuning Valley coach Jeff Compan said. “I thought we battled pretty well throughout the game.
“Though, we were uncharacteristically bad from the foul line early in the game. In a game like this, you need to take advantage of any opportunity you have.”
The Lakers (21-3) like to run Kelsea Brown and Megan Stech in the post as they are usually more athletic than what the opposition can throw at them.
Thursday night, though, there were struggles as 6-foot-1 Champion center MacKenzie Kiser was a force to be reckoned with, helping to holding both Brown and Stech scoreless in the first half.
“I knew I had to move my feet a lot because they are quicker than I am, and to keep my hands straight up, so I didn’t get in foul trouble,” Kiser said. “Though, that really didn’t work out.”
Kiser finished with a 24-point, 17-rebound performance.
It didn’t help PV’s matters, either, that both got into foul trouble as Brown picked up her second at 5:47 mark of the second quarter and Stech received her third with a little over more than minutes left in the first half.
“It definitely affected us, but I don’t think it was the difference,” Compan said. “I think the big thing was the foul line. That’s four or five extra points you could get. It’s a big difference, but you’re not going to make them all.”
Compan felt his team could have done more inside to help create better matchups and open the paint if buckets would have fallen.
“We didn’t get inside enough,” he said, “We tried to move (Kiser) a bit. She was pretty stationary in there. We didn’t shoot the ball well enough in the second and third quarters to make her come out. I thought if we could move her, we could get fouls called on her. When she’s just standing there straight up, she’ll play good defense inside.”
Despite the offensive woes and the 4-of-10 free throw shooting, the largest lead either team had was that of four points by Champion in a first half that saw six lead changes.
The Golden Flashes (16-9) would extend their lead out to as much seven after Gabby Lamont’s 3 made it 26-19, but from there Brown started to get her game going as her third bucket of the quarter got the game tied at 31 before Lamont’s free throw with four seconds left gave Champion 32-31 heading into the final quarter.
Brown and Geena Gabriel each scored 13 points in defeat.
Instead of any possible momentum going their way, the Lakers instead saw Champion roll off a 11-0 run to open the fourth quarter.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Compan said. “They had a nice game plan. They executed well. They hit the big shots. Lamont was big, and I don’t think Kiser missed hardly any inside. It’s tough for us to match up.”
Champion coach Jeff Thompson didn’t want to see a repeat of what happened back on Jan. 12 when his team let a victory slip away at PV with 30 seconds remaining, so he made some tweaks to combat the Lakers’ press.
“I don’t think we did a lot differently,” he said. “We ran different press breaks in this game. It wasn’t always pretty. We changed them up and decided we needed to attack more instead of being passive with the ball, like we were in the third quarter. If teams want to press, you have to attack them back.
“In the fourth quarter, Jeff came out in man. We wanted to go to Kiser and she got us a layup. We ran a set play and got that. Then, Lamont got a bucket. We made passes.
“When he really brought that 1-2-2, we had problems making the pass and getting into an offense during the third and fourth quarter. Those two buckets put the kids at ease a bit and got them focused.”
Still, the Lakers were still game and rattled off three straight buckets to get it to 43-37 after a Gabriel bucket with 3:58 left.
Then, another opportunity showed up in the form of Kiser picking up her fourth foul with less than two minutes to go and then fouling out with 1:36 left in regulation.
“When Mackenzie fouled out, we thought ‘OK, we have the lead,’” Thompson said. “Let’s spread the ball. We’ll take layups and go to the free-throw line. Our biggest concern was Gabriel was going to start attacking the basket. We’re a different rebounding team when Kiser’s not in the game.”
Gabriel would prove Thompson’s premonition correct as her bucket cut it to four at 47-43 with 1:12 left.
Brown’s hoop with less than a minute to go got PV to within two, 49-47, but the biggest play came with 18 seconds left as a missed rebound went the way of Champion on a jump ball.
“I thought we had our shot, we missed the rebound with 18 seconds to go,” Compan said. “It was a two-point game. They got the jump ball on that. That was a big play, obviously. You can’t look back and say one play was the difference.”
The Lakers still cut it one after a Michealia Skleres bucket, but in the end, Lamont split two at line with five seconds left. A last-second, desperation heave by PV wasn’t meant to be and was more than a little relief for Kiser, whose exit almost spelled doom for her team.
“That was the most nerve wracking feeling ever,” Kiser said. “I wanted to throw up, I was so nervous. I’m like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’
“My teammates stepped up and did what they had to.”
Fortune is a freelance writer from McDonald.