Versailles met its “biggest” challenge yet in the tournament, challenge conquered, and on to a date with the state’s #1 in Saturday’s regional finals.
Springfield – Count it as nothing less than another box checked on the challenge list that comes with the journey to any state Final Four.
And Wednesday evening the Versailles Tigers did nothing less than that, defeating the Hamilton Badin Rams, 50-36, in game one of the Division III regional semi-finals at Springfield High School.
It was, without a doubt, their “biggest” challenge to date, given the post tandem of Badin’s twin towers, sophomores Emma Broermann and Claire McCurley. Both were listed at 6’1” in the tournament program, but seriously, they took up the space of Chamberlain and Russell back in the day.
And determined to negate what has to date been the considerable post presence of Versailles’ own post complement of Danielle Winner and Elizabeth Ording, it was obvious from the beginning that Badin (19-9) was intent on owning the real estate in the immediate vicinity of the rim.
“You always want to know how you’ll react to size like that,” said Versailles coach Jacki Stonebraker. “But during the season you usually see just one, not two, and not three that size. So tonight was a great test and even changing things up a bit it showed that we had the things in our back pocket that we needed to use.”
What they did was employ some zone defense, change the look, and change the feel of Badin’s offense. Made to stand in the middle of a congested defensive presence neither Broermann or McCurley were athletic enough to make themselves accessible to the ball, or, create space enough for shots once they had it.
The plan worked. Broermann finished the game with 10 points – McCurley with 4. And the rest of the offense, the backcourt, forced to pick up the slack, had to contend with the superior quickness and athleticism of Versailles’ guards, Kami McEldowney, Camille Watren, and Ellen Peters. But without the inside “go-to”, the Rams were whittled down to size…more like lambs.
It was, however, a challenge. Versailles took the first quarter lead of 16-9, only to see Badin worked their way back to within three points in the second, outscoring the Tigers 13-12.
But the superior quickness of Watren and McEldowney wore on the size and stamina of Badin, and sent the message…we can get anyplace we want to, and get the ball to anyone we want, anytime. That amounted to Danielle Winner, who had 5 first half points, and freshman Lindsay Winner, who chipped in three field goals of her own.
But the most damaging blows were dealt by McEldowney and Watren, who continually blew by the Badin guards to either distribute, score, or draw fouls. McEldowney finished the half with 5 points – Watren with 7 – and the biggest blow came at the horn.
Badin had cut the Versailles lead to 25-22 on their last possession before halftime, leaving Versailles with the possession and four seconds on the clock. Watren sprinted across the time line and launched a rainbow at the rim from 40 feet…that banked in to extend the lead at the break to 28-22.
“I knew it was in,” said Watren later.
“I loved it,” added Stonebraker. “She dribbled all the way up the court, I knew she was going to shoot it, she stepped into the shot and it went in. It was great enthusiasm to go into halftime with.”
The second half was more of a grind, fewer points, but a resolve on the part of Versailles go right at Broermann and McCurley, challenge them, score, create foul trouble…or all of the above.
“We told them, ‘go right at ‘em, go right at their bigs’,” said Stonebraker. “They weren’t invincible. We just had to keep going at ‘em and push ‘em around.”
Winner responded, scoring eight of her team-high 13 points in the second half. But more importantly, the Tigers were able to extend their lead, finally to double digits (10 points) with 5:55 remaining in the fourth quarter…and as they did they became more patient, working the clock, drawing fouls, putting themselves in the double bonus, where they should have salted the game away nicely. Except……
They didn’t exactly salt things away, hitting just 11 of 21 from the free throw line for 52%.
Stonebraker would add that it was a great game to win, against a team that she knew wouldn’t quit, or go away. It was the kind of challenge met that you need on your way to a hoped-for title.
“Badin just doesn’t go away,” she said. “They’re like every MAC team we play. They keep running at you, they keep hustling, and we knew we had to play a full 32 minutes to win.”
Danielle Winner, likewise explained that it was a “fun” challenge, that forced her team to demonstrate more and different ways to win.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Winner. “They were big and I hadn’t played against girls that big in a while. It was fun competition and credit to our guards because they knew when to get inside to us and when to keep it themselves. The important thing is when you’re playing someone that size you just have to concentrate on your game and not worry about them.”
Carrying a big orange cookie decorated like a basketball, Kami McEldowney left the locker room with a smile, assumably over winning the game and not the cookie. Her presence, her athleticism, and her court savvy had once again been the difference in winning against a different type of opponent and obstacle. And combined with Camille Watren, they actually looked “comfortable” in doing it.
“Obviously we’ve been here before, we’ve got good seniors on this team, so we’ve got that experience and it’s nice to be with a team that can play together the way we do. Everybody has their roles, and they just do what they need to do when we need them to do it.”
Versailles moves to 24-3 for the year, shooting 50% from the floor (18 for 36), with minimum tries from three-point range (1-4, 25%), and their something-less-than-desired experience at the foul line (11 for 21, 52%). Danielle Winner had a team-high 13 points, while McEldowney finished with 11 – Watren with 10.
And…they held Badin to 33% from the floor (13 of 39), and limited their chances to do damage with the one-two punch – Broermann and McCurly. Broermann finished with 10 points. Teammate Shelby Nusbaum, likewise, had 10.
They move on now to what many call the toughest game of any title run…the regional final game against the state’s #1-ranked, and undefeated, Summit Country Day. Summit was a 53-50 winner in Wednesday’s second game against Liberty Union, from Baltimore, Ohio.
Stonebraker talked in terms of that same comfort felt by Danielle Winner, Camille Watren, and Kami McEldowney. They have past big-game experience, they’re responding to new challenges with new contributions nearly every game, and as she said recently…this is their time of year. Why worry? Just play.
“I think, overall, we can handle the pressure,” she concluded Wednesday. “I think we handle the ball better than with teams in the past and when you can do that it helps put teams on their heels.”
And to the disturbing continuance of missed shots inside at close range, at and around the rim, she even had a theory about that.
“A missed shot at the rim is better than a turnover,” she said. “Our best offense sometimes is a missed shot because we can get the rebound and put it back in.”
One more thing…to check off the list!