COLUMBUS – Versailles advanced to the Division III state championship game for the third time in four years with a dominating 58-34 victory over Winchester Eastern in the state semifinals on Friday at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
Versailles, which only trailed for 15 seconds in Friday’s Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament game, held just a 3-point lead at the end of the first quarter but then took complete control on its way to the 24-point victory.
“I felt like our girls came ready to play,” Versailles girls basketball coach Jacki Stonebraker said. “We started the first quarter with a lot of pressure; that was the name of the game. I knew we wouldn’t wear them out in the first quarter, it might not even be the second quarter we wore them out, but into the third and fourth we could start to smell the blood in the water.”
Eastern did a good job of establishing what it wanted to do early, Warrior coach Kevin Pickerill said, but couldn’t maintain it against the more physical Versailles squad.
“They really make you work for each basket, each possession, each pass, for that matter,” Pickerill said. “I thought they done a good job with that. Our kids wasn’t quite used to the physicality of the game, and this wore us down over a period of time. We’re big, but we get slow and we get tired and a little bit lazy at times. But at the end of the day we fought and clawed, just didn’t quite have enough.”
Versailles struck first in Friday’s game with a 3-pointer by Camille Watren. Danielle Winner also added a pair of early free throws to put the Tigers up 5-0.
After Eastern scored its first points of the afternoon, Watren answered with another 3-pointer to make it 8-2.
“She has ice in her blood,” Stonebraker said of Watren. “She just came out like a senior should and just took the shots and they were falling tonight.”
After falling behind early, Eastern responded with a 7-0 run to take its first lead of the day at 9-8. But once again Watren responded, draining her third 3-pointer of the game to put the Tigers up for good.
“I thought they did a good job of stretching our defense there early,” Pickerill said. “Hit a couple 3s that brought us out of maybe our sagging man-to-man defense and got them from some key people who we didn’t think maybe could shoot quite as well as they did. And when we did that then they was able to pound the ball inside and really take advantage of us.”
Before the quarter ended Versailles got its fourth 3-pointer, this one from Kami McEldowney, to put the Tigers ahead 14-11.
“Especially with Camille starting out with three 3s right there, that gave us the confidence like, all right, we can do it, we can start shooting the 3s,” McEldowney said.
With Eastern now worried about Versailles’ outside shooting, the Tigers started pounding the ball inside. Elizabeth Ording, Danielle Winner and Lindsey Winner combined for 10 of Versailles’ 12 second quarter points as the Tigers increased their lead to 26-15 by halftime.
In the second half Versailles continued to get even stronger. The Tigers increased their advantage to 41-26 in the third quarter on the way to the 58-34 victory.
Versailles had four girls in double-digit scoring on Friday with 14 points from Watren, 14 points from Danielle Winner, 11 from McEldowney and 11 from Elizabeth Ording. Kami Ording, Ellen Peters, Clair Schmitmeyer and Lindsey Winner added 2 points each.
“I don’t know how much better you could play team basketball than that,” Stonebraker said.
Eastern has three girls, each 6 feet or taller, who combined averaged more than 36 points per game this season. Versailles held the trio to 22 points and also out-rebounded the Warriors 31 to 20.
Defense was the Tigers’ focus all week, Stonebraker said, and they did a great job of smothering Eastern’s big scorers.
“Everybody that guarded 21 (Allison Day) knew their assignment, and everybody that guarded 44 (Alexa Pennington) knew their assignment,” Stonebraker said.
Day led Eastern with 11 points, Morgan Reynolds scored 10, Pennington scored 7, Mikayla Farris scored 4, and Jensen Sowers scored 2.
Versailles’ girls credited their experience playing in big games, including during the 2015 season when they won the Division III state championship, with helping them on Friday.
“The first couple steps out there I was like, man, this is second home to us,” McEldowney said of returning to the Schottenstein Center. “It was just great seeing it again and great to play on it.”
Stonebraker said she’s stressed to the girls that they need to cherish this moment because it doesn’t happen every year.
“You should hear us in the hallway on the way through there,” Danielle Winner said. “We clap and we say cheers the whole way through because it’s quite a long walk to get down there (to the court), but it’s so fun. We’re always just laughing with each other and having a great time.”
Versailles has made a habit of playing for state championships and will do so once again at 5:15 p.m. Saturday at the Schottenstein Center. The Lady Tigers will play Gates Mills Gilmour Academy, who beat Columbus Africentric 65-54 in the other state semifinal, for the Division III state championship.
“We’ve got some good ball players, don’t get me wrong, but any time you can make it back to the state and back to this level it’s incredible because it takes the right combination and playing well at the right time and everybody staying healthy and doing what you do and just trusting yourself,” Stonebraker said. “I’m not going to say I’m surprised because I knew we could do it, but it’s not something that happens every day. It’s not just because we go through the motions. We really get after it.”