MINERAL RIDGE - In the battle of the four-time defending league champions it was an United effort that made the difference.
Three Eagles scored 10 points a piece and another scored nine as the Inter-Tri County League upper tier champs found a way to move to the Division III district final with a 47-36 victory over Northeastern Athletic Conference champion Pymatuning Valley on Thursday at Mineral Ridge High School.
"I can see why they're a four-time champion," Pymatuning Valley coach Jeff Compan said. "I love the way they play. They play almost exactly like us. It was a fun game. I love to see them going up and down. There were a lot of turnovers and bad passes and whatnot, but to me that's fun to watch. It's not old time basketball where you make 30 passes to try to get a layup."
United improves to 20-3 and will take on defending district champion Youngstown Ursuline at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
The Eagles have won 13 straight and have not allowed more than 40 points during that streak.
Against Py Valley (19-4), it looked easy at times for the Eagles. And then it didn't.
United had a 13-3 lead at one point in the first quarter - a quarter in which the Eagles forced the Lakers into eight turnovers. The Eagles were also up 21-12 in the second quarter only to see that erode with a Laker 10-1 run to end the half.
Cassidy Yoder, who had 10 points, said coach Sam Mathias did yell a bit in the locker room at the half, but it served as motivation.
"Coach said we need to pick it up and he knew that we could play better," Yoder said.
United's stellar defense limited the Lakers to two points in the third quarter. Those two points gave Py Valley a brief 24-22 lead, but a 10-0 run by the Eagles had the score at 34-24 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
And that would not stand either. Py Valley charged back with a 9-0 run to put it at 34-33 around the midway mark of the fourth. United turned around and made an 11-0 run to seal the deal.
"That's a quality team over there," Mathias said. "They're very athletic and young. They'll be very tough to handle the next few years once they get some experience. We knew coming into it it would be a game of runs and if we could withstand their pressure."
Sophomore guard Mackenzie Gatchel led the charge for the Eagles with 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Taylor Smith, who sat on the bench for much of the third quarter with foul trouble, had 10 points and nine boards. Emily Zehentbauer had nine points and four steals in a defensive effort which created 23 turnovers.
Shauna Soderstrom led the Lakers with 12 points. Py Valley's coach thought his team might make a run at it when the score was 34-33, but United's good shooting down the stretch did them in.
"We thought maybe by the fourth quarter some of those jumpers would hit the front of the rim, but they kept going 'Wham! Wham!'," Compan said. "Credit them in the fourth quarter. They didn't miss. They were on fire."
United will have to keep that up against the Irish on Saturday. Last year, the Eagles lost 52-43 to Ursuline in the district semifinal. Many of those same Ursuline players are back this year.
"Ursuline is a very good team," Mathias said. "We've been preparing for them since June. We knew they were the team we had to beat it we were going to be district champions."