A horrible start came back to haunt, and their second half comeback came up just short…as Versailles falls to Columbus Africentric in the Division III title game.
Columbus – It would be too simplistic to say…that free throw shooting and too many ill-timed turnovers cost the #1-ranked Versailles Tigers their shot at a Division III state basketball title Saturday. Even though, in reality, it probably did. The numbers don’t lie.
The Tigers dropped only their second game of the season, 53-47!
But facing a #6-ranked Columbus Africentric team that was athletic, tall (or long, in the modern vernacular), and deeper off their bench, Versailles rebounded from a terrible first quarter start to come back in the second half to actually take a one-point lead at the end of the third quarter. But uncharacteristically, the Tigers this time could not sustain their comeback momentum. Africentric hung on and hit key free throws with under 30 seconds remaining to win their sixth state title in nine trips to the Final Four.
“It’s hard to prepare for that size and speed in practice…until you actually see it in a game,” said Versailles coach Jacki Stonebraker. “But these girls are tough cookies. They’re not going to break and they’re not going to back down. When we were down in the first quarter they looked at me and said…let’s go, let’s go, we got this. And they did.”
The Tigers trailed 15-8 at the end of the first quarter, and 30-21 at the end of the first half. The taller, quicker Nubians (Africentric’s nickname) swarmed on defense, created turnovers, and turned those miscues into transition points. The Tigers, for those sixteen critical minutes, appeared to be in ‘shock’ mode.
And true to the numbers, free throw shooting had a big part in their creating that deficit. They hit just 7 of 16 attempts for the game (43.8%)…and eventually lost by just six points.
“It’s been our nemesis all year,” admitted Stonebraker afterwards. “It’s something we need to improve.”
But for a team that prides itself on playing fundamentally sound against the best competition they can find, it turned out to be an ironic twist to their title quest.
But the Nubians size created other offensive problems, as well. The Tigers had five shots blocked by Africentric, and numerous others changed, or altered, as a result of their interior size. Their quickness resulted in eight steals, as they routinely stepped up in the passing lane and picked off errant throws.
And still Versailles came out in the third quarter, after ten minutes to regroup, and outscored Africentric 16-12. They found a way to enter the ball to the post, to Danielle Winner…and Kami McEldowney did what she does best. She made big shots – a pair of three-pointers – that cut the lead to six. Lindsey Winner hit one of her own, to cut it to three. Africentric answered; but McEldowney came right back to hit another bomb.
Africentric turnovers played into Versailles’ hands and by the end of the quarter Versailles had tied, and for a brief moment, took the lead, 41-40.
But they couldn’t hold it. A pair of ill-timed Caitlin McEldowney turnovers gave Africentric four unanswered points in transition, and that seemed to take air out of the Tigers’ comeback balloon.
“We found a way to get the ball into the post, and Kami’s shooting got us back into it,” added Stonebraker. “At halftime I told them to keep going to the boards because we were dominating them, and they did (Versailles won the battle of the boards, 36-30). The turnovers hurt, and they were a little high (17) for us. But I really felt like we had to keep attacking. Because when we didn’t attack it looked worse. We can play pretty fast, but they were that much faster. Their arms were that much longer, and when we tried to get the backdoor cuts we couldn’t connect on them.”
They finished shooting 38% from the floor, with Kami McEldowney leading with 16 points. Caitlin McEldowney and Danielle Winner each had 7. Lindsey Winner had 8. Liz Ording had 5, and Ellen Peter had 2.
Africentric was led by a game-high 22 points from Alexia Smith, while shooting the identical percentage from the floor, 38%. Jordan Horsten added 13 points, Nyam Thornton had 9, Sakima Walker, Iyanna Hairston and Kazhmere Smith-Hopwood each had 2, and Maliyah Johnson had 3.
It brings to a close a season of heightened expectation, right from the start, while establishing the legacy of a senior class that won a hundred games, a state title as freshmen, a state title in volleyball, titles in track, and two state second place finishes in basketball.
They would have liked to have had one more…the 127th state title for the vaunted MAC. And maybe next year, as Caitlin McEldowny, Lindsey Winner, Danielle Kunk and Kelsey Custenborder will be back to build around. These girls are tough cookies. They don’t back down.
They’ve learned from the best!