BERLIN CENTER-All season long, senior forward Aleah Whitacre had been a part of the starting lineup for the Columbiana Clippers. However, in an effort to light a fire under her, coach Ron Moschella chose to begin Whitacre on the bench in the biggest game of the year at first-place Western Reserve.
By the end of the night, the strategy paid off handsomely.
With the Clippers trailing by two and in need of offense, Whitacre scored all eight of her points in the final six minutes and grabbed eight rebounds to spark Columbiana to a 38-29 victory.
The Clippers improve to 11-1 overall and 7-1 in the Inter-Tri County League lower tier, pulling into a first place tie with the Blue Devils (9-4, 7-1) who took the first meeting in December.
"The benching definitely made me mad, but I know coach had a reason to do it," Whitacre said. "I believed he knew what he was doing, accepted it and came out and played hard tonight."
With the Clippers trailing 27-25 early in the third quarter and Western Reserve playing their usual brand of hard-nosed defense, Whitacre went to work, giving the Clippers the lead for good when she made a shot under the basket, was fouled and made the free throw. Mollie Donnelly ran the lead to four with a corner three and a minute later, Whitacre came up with her second three-point play to widen the lead to 34-27 with three minutes left. Whitacre capped her effort with a critical defensive rebound with under two minutes to go.
"Aleah needed to start playing with an edge, and she played with a big edge tonight," Moschella said. "She made some huge plays for us down the stretch."
"We really needed some points and had to work together to get them," Whitacre said. "I just happened to be the one shooting."
Donnelly also came up with a big effort for the Clippers, connecting on three three-pointers for a game-high 13 points to go with six rebounds.
"I thought Donnelly's three in the fourth quarter was a huge play," Western Reserve coach Steve Miller said. "That gave them some room and we followed with some bad turnovers."
For most of the game, the Blue Devils had the Clippers playing their preferred slow, grinding style. For the second straight game, the Western Reserve defense was able to stall the high-powered Clipper offense. Aleah Hughes led the Blue Devils with 11 points and nine rebounds, while Rachel Maslach had 10 points. The Blue Devils are the only team to hold the Clippers under 50 points this season.
"We have to hang our hat on defense," Miller said. "We believe we have the best defense in the league and we did what we wanted to do tonight, they just have up with some big plays at the end."
Miller wound up lamenting the Blue Devils missed opportunities at the free throw line. Western Reserve normally shoots 70 percent from the line, but was only 5 of 14.
"If you leave nine points hanging out there in a game like this you are in trouble," Miller said. "I thought that was a huge difference."
Nevertheless, four straight Maslach points had given the Blue Devils their two point lead with six minutes left and ignited the crowd. Most of the night, Moschella had shelved his usual press defense and sat back, For the rest of the game he turned his players loose in a full court press. While Whitacre and Donnelly handled the scoring, the Clipper defense held the Blue Devils scoreless until the final minute.
"We did a good job in the half-court defense, but it was time to force the issue," Moschella said.
"Saving the press for the end was a good strategy," Miller said. They did it all game in December and we were ready for it. Tonight I think not seeing it most of the game caused our guard to be let down on a few crucial possessions."
With the two teams now deadlocked, both took pleasure in the intensity of the night.
"It's a lot of fun to be tested," Moschella said. "They can really play basketball, I told our players win or lose this is what it is all about. We have to keep up this focus the rest of the year, we can't count on them losing."
"I figured it was going to be a war and it was," Miller said. "It was a night every athlete should experience. The important thing is we are still tied, our destiny is still in our hands."
Columbiana won the jayvee game 45-34. Sydney Miller had 11 point for the Clippers. Maddie Kreitzburg had 14 for Western Reserve.
The Blue Devils are the only team to hold Columbiana under 50 points this year.
"Nobody that I know of teaches hard defense like Miller in the ITCL," Moschella said. "The players really buy in."
The Clippers played the entire physical night with six players.
"Our girls are in great condition," Moschella said. "Stamina was not a problem.
WESTERN RESERVE: 8-5-10-6-29
COLUMBIANA SCORING: Baylie Mook 1-4-6, Bri Gingher 0-0-0, Lauren Schlueter 3-0-7, Mollie Donnelly 3-4-13, Emily Witmer 2-0-4, Aleah Whitacre 2-4-8. TEAM TOTALS: 11, 12-15: 38.
WESTERN RESERVE SCORING: Sydney Miller 0-0-0, Lauren Falasca 0-0-0, Bethany Burger 0-0-0, Rachel Maslach 6-0-12, Paige Ewing 0-0-0, Tory White 2-1-6, Maddie Kreitzburg 0-0-0, Gabby Stubbs 0-0-0, Aleah Hughes 3-4-11. TEAM TOTALS: 11, 5-14: 29.
Three-point goals: Columbiana 4 (Donnelly 3, Schlueter), Western Reserve 2 (Hughes, White).