BELOIT - It was a night of milestones for West Branch on Wednesday as the Northeastern Buckeye Conference champions hosted South Range for senior night - their final game of the regular season.
It wasn't just that it was seniors Brittany Bryte and Kyla Sharp's last home game - as it turned out, it was the Warriors' 20th win, as they powered past the Raiders 44-31.
"It's always nice to win the last one of the regular season," West Branch coach Walt DeShields said. "And the last one of the tourney, too."
The win was the ninth straight for the Warriors, ranked 12th in the Div. II state poll at 20-2 overall.
"It's senior night, it's an emotional night," DeShields said. "I'm proud of Brittany and Kyla. Coming off the floor, knowing they won their last game here, that's big. Their leadership - they put a lot of effort out there, showing the younger girls how hard they have to work. It's a lot of time, commitment and sacrifice."
The Warriors' defense stifled South Range throughout the game. West Branch jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the first quarter, eventually expanding it to as much as 19-6 in the first half. The Raiders got back within seven, 21-14, at the half.
"They're physical, well-coached they know their positioning and where to be," South Range coach Wayne Johnson said. "They expanded our offense way out. We could not get into our offensive sets. We couldn't get anything.
"We didn't play as good as we could play. But they've got a lot of talent- they're loaded."
South Range struck first in the third quarter, making it 21-16, but West Branch sophomore Pavin Heath turned things back around for the Warriors with a big three-pointer - her third of five on the night, as she finished with 19 points.
"We were a little inconsistent offensively - except for Pavin Heath," DeShields said. "She knocked it down, she carried us offensively."
Heath hit another three to close out scoring in the third quarter, putting the Warriors up 31-20. After that, the Warriors' lead never dipped below double-digits.
"I was ready to play tonight, especially for our seniors," Heath said. "I like (hitting a big shot) for the team. I think it helps them too, it helps get the momentum and get everyone going."
Both teams now get ready for tournament play. South Range will play second-seeded Brookfield at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Mineral Ridge Division III sectional.
"It's a good game for us going into the tournament," Johnson said. "We had a big week. We're getting better. We don't feel good about the loss, but we feel good that we're making progress.
"There's a lot of talent in our tournament bracket, but none of them are better than West Branch."
The Warriors, meanwhile, will take on Liberty at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Austintown Fitch Division II sectional.
"We don't want to take anything for granted," DeShields said. "I want them to understand it's a new season - everyone's 0-0 now. It doesn't matter if we win pretty or win ugly, it's just win, survive and move on.
"It's like it used to be on the playground - if you win, you get to keep the court. You want to keep the court as long as you can."
DeShields and his team know that defensive efforts like they put together against South Range will be key to advancing in the tournaments.
"Our biggest thing is pressuring the basketball," he said. "Being able to guard somebody and take pride in that. Basically, our effort on defense - our goal is to not take a break. They trust in their other four teammates to be there on the rotations and in the gaps, and because of that we're able to pressure the ball more."
Heath also knows her team will have to continue to shut down their opponents as they move ahead.
"Now it's especially important - we need to step up our defense for the tourneys. We need to hold our opponents so we can get our offense up."
South Range finishes its regular season at 12-10. Sara Durr led the Raiders with seven points, while senior Lexi Naples added six points and five rebounds.
"Wayne Johnson is doing a great job at South Range," DeShields said. "He's got a great group. They work hard, play hard - they're scrappy.
"We're a little bit bigger school (than South Range). We like to mix it up, get out and face different people. The biggest thing is facing different styles. We really want to play different types of teams to try to be good against them."
Melinda Trimmer, who DeShields said has been sick for several days, finished with eight points for the Warriors. Erica Johnson pulled down 12 rebounds to go with six points.
"Erica Johnson did a tremendous job on the boards," DeShields said. "At 5-foot-8, that's all effort, grittiness and toughness.
"Everyone contributed. Not everyone always plays their best every night, but they know they have to put that behind them and move on."
West Branch also won the junior varsity game, 54-51 in overtime. Catie Hahn scored 11 and Kaylee Manning added 10 for West Branch, while Markie Gabriel, Lynnie Ritter and Sara Durr each scored eight for South Range.
South Range finished third in the Inter-Tri County League upper tier. West Branch also beat ITCL upper tier champion United by 13 points last month.
The 50-50 take was $62.
Several West Branch senior boys dressed up as cheerleaders, entertaining the crowd with cheers and chants, a few cartwheels and several maneuvers best described as something similar to the elementary "stop, drop and roll" drill.
S. RANGE: 2-12- 6-11-31
W. BRANCH: 12- 9-10-13-44
SOUTH RANGE SCORING: Lexi Naples 3-0-6, Allison Oliver 0-0-0, Starla Sharp 2-0-4, Ashley Sharp 0-0-0, Stevie Taylor 0-0-0, Sierra Petrella 1-0-2, Elaina Kimpel 1-0-2, Jordan Youngs 2-1-5, Lynnie Ritter 1-0-2, Holly Heck 0-0-0, Kelsey Phillips 1-0-3, Sara Durr 1-5-7, Morgan Czopur 0-0-0. TOTALS: 12, 6-11: 31.
WEST BRANCH SCORING: Brittany Bryte 1-0-2, Kyla Sharp 0-0-0, Melinda Trimmer 1-6-8, Emily Menegay 0-0-0, Kaylee Manning 0-0-0, Pavin Heath 7-0-19, Amanda Linhart 0-3-3, Paige Walsh 0-0-0, Taryn Hahn 3-0-6, Erica Johnson 2-2-6, Lea Bock 0-0-0. TOTALS: 14, 11-18: 44.
Three-pointers: South Range 1 (Phillips), West Branch 5 (Heath 5).