Abigail Hardwick goes up for a lay-up in Cardington’s Tuesday night win over Highland.

Rob Hamilton | Morrow County Sentinel

Cardington overcame a slow start offensively thanks to strong defensive play and topped visiting Highland 42-31 in a Tuesday night girls’ basketball contest.

The Pirates only got two free throws from Magi Hallabrin in the first quarter, but held the Scots to four points and only trailed by two after eight minutes of action. Cardington hit their first shot from the floor at the beginning of the second quarter when Lydia Hess connected for two points. Abigail Hardwick then followed with a three to give the Pirates their first lead of the game at 7-4.

Highland would immediately battle back as Bryleigh Young was fouled on a three-point attempt and sank all three of her free throws to tie the game. After a Kinstin Henthorn three put Cardington back in front, the Scots got three-pointers from MaKaylee Merckling and Young to go in front 13-10 with 3:18 left in the half.

Unfortunately for the Scots, they would not score again before intermission. Hallabrin hit a pair of free throws and Henthorn added a late basket to send Cardington in the half with a slim 14-13 advantage.

Cardington head coach Kevin Fitzpatrick credited his team’s defensive play.

“The numbers for our defense don’t really tell the story,” he said. “When we turn the ball over, that’s where we’ve given up points. When we get in the half-court defense, we do a pretty good job. I thought our defense locked them down pretty well. We got some turnovers and attacked the rim and got some easy buckets. We got off to an good start in the third quarter. I don’t know what the run was at the beginning, but it had to be six or seven in a row to start the quarter and then we just kept going from there.”

Cardington did start the third period with seven straight points — four by Hess — to open up an eight-point lead and force the Scots to play from behind. Highland coach Matt Bradley said that can be an issue for his young team.

“We’re not good enough offensively to play from behind,” he said. “We need to, to use a football analogy, get the lead and run the football. Because we struggle to score it, we have to rely on our defense. For the first four games, we did. Tonight, we were not as sharp defensively as we have been.”

For Fitzpatrick, whose team also has had issues scoring consistently, those early minutes of the third quarter were just what he wanted to see.

“We decided to just spread the floor and pass and cut through,” he said. “I told them when you cut to the middle, look for the ball and if you get it, you can reverse and look for an open shot. I think the other difference was not just against the zone, but we also came up and pressured them a little bit more and got some easy shots to go in. We had the same shots in the first half; they just didn’t go in. Finally, the ball started going in for us.”

Highland would get five points from Merckling, as well as a three-pointer by Reagan Maibach, to cut the Cardington lead to a 26-23 margin by the end of the period. After one free throw from Hardwick, Merckling connected from long range again to make it a 27-26 game with 7:35 remaining in regulation.

Cardington would get back-to-back shots from Hallabrin and Hardwick to open up a five-point lead. While Kate Clements scored for the Scots at the 4:15 mark to make it a 31-28 contest, the team only got three points down the stretch and the Pirates were able to convert enough free throws to pull away for an 11-point win.

“We just talked to them in the locker room about having a sense of urgency and I think Cardington had more of a sense of urgency in the fourth quarter than we did,” said Bradley after the game. “Credit to them for being more ready than we were over 32 minutes tonight.”

Hardwick scored 10 points to lead Cardington, while Hess added eight. For Highland, Merckling hit three three-pointers on her way to a game-high 12 points. Also, Young finished with eight.

While his team fell to 2-3 after the loss, Bradley noted that the Scots are progressing as a program, despite being very young this year.

“We’re so young,” he said. “We have one senior and two juniors in the entire program, so it’s a trial by fire for our sophomores and freshmen. It’s a good thing we are competitive. Now, the next step is how do we find ways to win when we’re not scoring it as well and when we’re not getting stops as well. And that will come. With such youth, it is encouraging, but now we just have to get over the hump and find ways to get it done.”

After the Pirates lost their first three games against tough opposition, Fitzpatrick was looking at the Highland game as the beginning of a new season — one that got off to a good start.

“We knew our first three games were going to be a gauntlet,” he said. “Two tough games on the road and then we got one of the better team in central Ohio in Pleasant at home. We knew that was going to be tough. I told them before the game, the second season starts tonight. We got those three really, really tough games out of the way. We’re at home in this fourth game, league season starts tomorrow night, let’s go out and do something different. I was proud of the kids who came out and did that. Hopefully, we can keep it going now.”

Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS