With All-Ohio guard Gigi Bower sidelined by an illness, Claire Mikola stepped up with 18 points and 11 steals to help Liberty clinch a share of the OCC Central championship.
Powell, OH – Not everything went exactly as coach Tommy Waterwash drew up it up Friday as his Olentangy Liberty girls basketball team took on Upper Arlington in perhaps its biggest game of the year.
It started at 10:30 a.m. when Waterwash received a text from Ohio University-bound senior standout guard Gigi Bower that she was ill with a 101-degree temperature and would not be playing in the Ohio Capital Conference Central Division showdown. The second-team All-Ohioan was averaging 16.9 points ands 3.7 rebounds with 44 three-point goals.
“It’s hard to change a whole lot at that point, so we just went about trying to do the same things we’ve been doing and hope that some other girls step up in her absence,” the fourth-year coach said.
Twice in the final 89 seconds of a one-possession game, he called time out to draw up a winning shot. Upper Arlington’s stingy defense blew up both potential plays.
Finally, Maria Stack took matters into her own hands. The 5-foot-8 junior guard caught the ball in the high post, reverse pivoted and spun to her left, launching a shot over 6-foot Elizabeth Hunt that rolled around the left side of the rim before somehow falling into the hoop with 2.8 seconds left, giving Liberty a heart-thumping 37-36 win.
“That definitely was not planned,” said Stack on her first game-winning shot as a varsity player. “I work on that back-step spin a lot. I had been able to turn on Hunt a few times. I saw the clocking ticking at six or seven seconds left so I let it go. I definitely did not think it was going in. Celebrating with my team was just amazing.”
Junior teammate Claire Mikola, who carried Liberty all night in the absence of Bower, said: “What a fantastic job Maria did on that last possession. She went up with confidence, but knowing her as well as I do, that didn’t surprise me.”
Only the game was not yet over.
Needing to go the length of the floor in 2.8 seconds, Upper Arlington coach John Wanke drew up a clever play in the huddle. Quinn Buttermore faked the inbounds, tossed the ball down the baseline to teammate Tatum Thrush and took off on a fly pattern to the basket. Thrush connected with the swift point guard on the 80-foot bomb, but – double-teamed by Stack and Claire Mikola – was unable to get off a clean shot.
But even that defensive gem didn’t exactly go as planned for the Patriots.
“That actually was a miscommunication on our part,” Mikola said. “We lost one of their runners at midcourt and left her wide open and that left Maria and me both on Buttermore. It all worked out, though.”
The win clinched a share of the Central title for Liberty (14-4, 8-0), which took a two-game lead over Upper Arlington (14-3, 6-2) with just two games to play. Liberty also won the first meeting 46-42 in overtime on Dec. 22.
“That’s Maria Stack being Maria Stack there,” Waterwash said. “She’s an absolute warrior. I couldn’t come up with enough words to compliment Maria and Claire tonight. They came through with clutch performances for us. They’re both outstanding players for our soccer team and that kind of big-game experience certainly carries over.”
In addition to claiming the Central title, the game carried significant ramifications for the postseason. Liberty, which upset unbeaten and top-ranked Olentangy last Saturday, entered the week fourth in the MaxPreps RPI formula used for district tournament seeding and UA was sixth.
The Golden Bears rallied from a 21-9 deficit early in the second quarter to lead much of the second half.
Emma Karagheuzoff knocked down an ice-cold three-point shot at the 3:15 mark to give Liberty a 35-34 lead.
Ella Hanky made two foul shots for UA to regain a 36-35 edge with 2:40 left.
There were five tie-ups resulting in alternate possessions in the next two minutes.
Understandably, Wanke and his players were distraught over an eight consecutive defeat to Liberty dating to 2016.
“We had every opportunity,” he said. “It’s all about making consecutive stops. We missed a lot of free throws and made a lot of turnovers (26). I give a lot of credit to Liberty. They found a way to get it done.”
Mikola, a University of Dayton soccer commit, finished with 18 points (doubling her season average) and racked up 11 of Liberty’s 19 steals. She came in averaging 9.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.2 steals.
“We kind of hoped Claire would be the girl who could inherit some of that load, so we planned for our other players to attack the basket to draw defenders away from her,” Waterwash said. “She’s just a freak athlete. I’m sure she could play college basketball if she wanted.”
With strong post work in the second half, Elizabeth Hunt paced the Golden Bears with 17 points. Thrush grabbed 11 rebounds and Buttermore was a dynamo handling the ball, passing and defending.
The defensive battle featured 44 turnovers, 33 steals and too many tie-ups to count, but it was terrific game nonetheless.