Thanks to a great defensive stretch in the second half, the Cardington girls’ basketball team advanced to the Division III district finals on Tuesday, topping Liberty Union 51-47.
The Pirates trailed 29-25 at the half, but outscored their opponents at the neutral site game hosted by Westerville North by a 22-7 margin over the first 13 minutes of the second half, only giving up two points during the entirety of the third quarter.
Head coach Jamie Edwards noted that his team just made a few adjustments to what they’d been doing defensively to counter the Lions in the second half.
“We sat there and talked as coaches for two minutes and made the call to stay in our 1-3-1 zone and pull the pressure out,” he said.
When the second half started, it didn’t take long for the Pirates to erase their four-point deficit, as Kyndall Spires opened the third quarter with a basket. Sage Brannon and Spires then each hit one free throw to tie the game at the 5:55 mark. Brannon added a three and Alyson Adams connected on a free throw to put Cardington in front by four.
Liberty Union would finally get back on the board with a basket at the 2:23 mark of the period, but Cardington finished with three straight points by Kynlee Edwards to lead 36-31 with eight minutes remaining.
The Pirates maintained their momentum into the fourth quarter, getting a put-back by Spires and two Brannon free throws to open up a 40-31 lead. Liberty Union responded with a basket, but Cardington got five straight points by Brannon to lead 45-33 with 5:57 to play.
LU got a three-pointer from Marissa Mattox — their first long-range shot of the second half after hitting five in the first half, but a basket by Spires gave the locals an 11-point lead heading into the final three minutes.
Those final moments wound up a bit stressful for Edwards’ team, though, as a combination of Liberty Union getting hot from outside and Cardington struggling from the charity stripe allowed the Lions to claw back into the contest. Alexis Mangette and Mattox both hit threes and Emily Hanson scored from inside, while the Pirates just made 2-of-8 free throws, as the score tightened to within a 49-44 margin with under a minute remaining.
However, after a stretch in which Cardington missed five straight foul shots, Spires was able to connect on a pair with 40 seconds remaining to give her team a three-possession lead.
“She’s gone from a player who couldn’t hit a free throw in the first eight games to one who’s been our most consistent over the last 14,” said Jamie Edwards of Spires. “She’s worked hard at them in practice — I told her that if she wants to be a 20/10 player, she needs to hit them.”
While Mangette was able to connect on another three for the Lions, they would not be able to get closer than a four-point margin and the Pirates were able to win after making the final moments stressful enough for their coach to worry about losing his hair.
“I told the girls that in about five more years, I’ll either have to retire or shave my head,” joked Edwards. “We missed 17 or 18 free throws. I thought we shot pretty decently until the fourth. But it’ll be our first district championship game in a decade. We’ll take it over an experienced team like Liberty Union.”
In the first half, after falling into a quick 5-0 hole, the Pirates rallied to take a 9-5 lead behind five points from Mikayla Conrad. However, the Lions closed within a 13-11 margin by the end of the opening period and scored the first point of the second to get within one.
A basket and free throw from Spires and a bucket by Edwards put Cardington up by six, but Libery Union scored seven straight to take a 19-18 advantage. While Cardington was able to tie the score twice, they weren’t able to regain the advantage in the opening half and trailed by four entering the intermission.
Spires led Cardington in scoring with 18 points, while Brannon added 14. Next up for Cardington on Friday will be Africentric, the Central District’s top-seeded team. While Edwards is expecting a tough match-up for his girls, he feels his fourth-seeded team has the ability to be an equally tough opponent for the Nubians.
“They get up in your face, so for our next few practices, we’ll get some of our boys’ players in to press us,” he said. “If we can do okay against their speed, we’ll be okay. We have good ball-handlers who will be ready for their pressure.”
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS