CUYAHOGA FALLS — The girls team Elyria Catholic fans have been waiting for is going to Columbus.
Playing strong defensively and almost flawlessly on offense the second half, the Panthers pulled away from Youngstown Ursuline 51-40 on Saturday afternoon.
They secured the first regional championship in the history of the girls program and became only the third Lorain County girls team to make a basketball Final Four. Elyria made the trip in 1979 and undefeated Avon Lake won the Division II state championship in 1994.
The jubilant Panthers began to celebrate on the court as the clock wound down with sophomore guard Brittany McNamara in control of the ball, grinning ear-to-ear.
“There’s a million things going through my mind,” said McNamara. “My dad told me two days ago, ‘To be great, you have to do something great.’ Tonight, we did something great.”
A backdrop of fans dressed in EC green and white were on their feet and cheering. Many fans joined the players on the floor as they cut down the nets and showed off the Division III regional championship trophy.
The seventh-ranked Panthers (24-2) will play in a state semifinal at 3 p.m. Friday in Value City Arena on the Ohio State campus.
The opponent will be top-ranked, undefeated Oak Hill (23-0). The Oaks of Jackson County in southern Ohio defeated Sardinia Eastern 50-44 on Saturday to win the Athens regional. Oak Hill was state runner-up in 2009.
EC led by a point after a quarter and found itself in an 18-18 tie at the break. But with seniors Emily Taylor and Ashley Schuster scoring four points each, the Panthers eased ahead 33-29 going into the final eight minutes.
They shot only nine times from the field in the fourth quarter. But in keeping with the game plan, had Ursuline in foul trouble and made 13 free throws.
“We had a defensive game plan,” coach Eric Rothgery said. “We had three girls we wanted to stop and our goal was to go at two of them and put them into foul trouble. We talked about it on the bus, we talked about it before the game. We’ve been talking about it the last two days.”
One of the targets was Courtney Powell, Ursuline’s 6-foot junior post and leading scorer (14.1 points a game). Powell fouled out with nearly half the fourth quarter left having scored eight points.
EC’s Taylor, whose energy level is roughly that of the Tasmanian Devil, made six of the 13 fourth-quarter foul shots. The 5-foot-6 point guard is one of eight seniors who have been working for years toward a trip to the Final Four — and of whom Panthers fans have been expecting big things. Seniors scored 35 of the team’s 50 points.
“We knew (the Fighting Irish) were going to come out strong in the first half because they only play six players,” said Taylor, who scored a team-high 14 points. “I think we were in much better shape and were able to wear them down.”
The 6-0 Schuster finished with 12 points and was a workhorse on the backboards.
“It was pretty physical having No. 32 (Powell) down there,” Schuster said. “That was a big body to go against. We knew we had to keep pounding (the ball) down, getting her in foul trouble. This is what we’ve been working for and we’re so happy to be here.”
As important as the seniors have been, the Panthers got two welcome jolts from sophomores Karissa McGrath and McNamara. McGrath, one of the first off the bench, scored six points in the first quarter after EC fell behind 4-0. Her first basket gave the Panthers their first lead, 5-4. Her second tied the game at 7.
“I mean, my team helped me,” the 5-9 McGrath said. “I just wanted to win. I wanted to make baskets and hope we could get a good lead.”
McNamara nailed a long 3-pointer with 30 seconds to play in the third quarter. It put the Panthers on top 33-29. She came back with a basket and two foul shots in the fourth period.
Rothgery said that while he and Panthers fans will miss the history-making seniors, no one need worry about a lack of talent in the near-future.
“For everybody who thinks we have nothing but seniors and the cupboard will be bare, come back next year,” he said. “Come back and watch.”
The senior starters were ecstatic when it was over.
“It’s really unexplainable what’s going on in my mind right now,” said senior Myrasia Flowers, a starting guard. “It’s an incredible feeling.”
“Coming into this we were feeling good and knew what we had to get done,” said Juliana Tremont. “We’re going out and celebrating for sure tonight.”
And Tory Rothgery, also a starter at guard, said: “This is an unbelievable feeling. I mean, this is everything we’ve worked for and it just feels amazing.”
Ursuline (17-8) was shooting for its third Final Four appearance in eight seasons. The Fighting Irish won the state title in 2004 and were runners-up two years later. Aurielle Irizarry, a 5-6 sophomore, scored a game-high 18 points and was the only Ursuline player to finish in double figures.
“We told the girls if we’re even at the half, we’re better-conditioned and deeper and we’ll win,” Eric Rothgery said. “We could have been ahead at the half, but they put a little five-point run on there at the end and that kind of hurt. We tried to get past that and talked about good things at halftime.”
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