By Lisa Byers
Just seconds into Wednesday night’s non-region girls basketball showdown between Meadville and Conneaut, the referee blew his whistle. Something was wrong.
The referee summoned an Eagles player to hand over the basketball and promptly bounced the ball off the floor.
“This ball is flat,” he said, showing the ball to the Meadville bench.
Meadville head coach Casey O’Shea retrieved a new basketball and play resumed. Problem solved, right? Not exactly.
A bit rusty after a number of days off due to the holiday season and weather cancelations, neither team had much luck finding the hoop even with a properly inflated basketball. Conneaut and Meadville, in fact, combined to miss a total of 76 shots, including a number of layups last night at Meadville’s House of Thrills.
Fans certainly didn’t go away empty-handed, though, as the Eagles and Bulldogs still managed to treat them to quite a battle.
Kim Litwin hit a pair of clutch free throws with just 13 seconds left to play as Conneaut hung on for a 39-35 win. The win is the seventh straight for the Eagles, who improved to 8-1 overall. Meadville fell to 2-7.
“We did not shoot well at all,” Conneaut coach Bill Stevenson said. “We missed a boat load of shots, a boat load of layups. We were getting pressure at times. Give (Meadville) some credit for some ball defense. We made some foul shots down the stretch, though, and in close ball games that’s what counts.”
Conneaut was the easy favorite going into last night’s game. Not only were the Eagles amid a six-game winning streak, they were coming off a huge 38-25 win over Grove City, the leader in Region 5, which also includes Meadville. And they did so without star Challen Litwiler, who was out of town.
Not once this season, either, had the Eagles been held to fewer than 43 points.
But when it’s CASH versus MASH, anything goes. And the Lady Bulldogs were ready for battle.
“I just told the girls in the locker room, ‘I’m not disappointed at all,’” O’Shea said. “From the beginning of the season — and I’m sure everyone will agree — to now we have come quite a long way.
“We still need to make those little bunnies and do the little things that really add up at the end and to the outcome. I’m not disappointed. I’m pretty excited.
“CASH is a good team. They are pretty athletic and they’ve beaten some pretty good teams that we play like Grove City. That’s promising for us I think.”
MASH had a pretty good idea of what it was going to take to beat the Eagles early on. The Bulldogs controlled the boards early and limited the Eagles to just one shot on every possession. Where Meadville struggled was against Conneaut’s pressure defense, which led to four quick baskets at the end of the second quarter to give the Eagles a 24-19 lead going into halftime.
Conneaut kept the pressure on at the start of the third quarter and extended that lead to 12 (31-19) on a layup by Litwiler. Litwiler scored 11 straight points for the Eagles.
Meadville did not panic.
The Bulldogs closed the gap to six (31-25) at the end of third and were within just four (33-29) with 5:18 to play. Kristen Baker made the first of two free throw attempts, missed on the second and put the rebound back in to push the Eagles’ lead back to seven (36-29). But Meadville, again, used its strength under the basket and cut that lead to two (37-35) with 1:45 to play.
Meadville had possession with 52 seconds left and broke through the Eagles’ press. The Bulldogs missed an easy layup and a pair of free throws that would have tied the game. Meadville had two more opportunities before Litwin was sent to the line with 13 seconds to play. The senior made both, putting the game out of reach.
“We have a lot more work to do to get back to where we were two weeks ago,” said Litwiler.
Last night’s game was figured the be the first of the final non-region series between Meadville and Conneaut. With the current two-year cycle ending at the conclusion of this school year, many predicted the MASH-CASH rivalry to turn into a region rivalry in 2014-15. The proposed regions don’t concur.
If the proposed regions pass, Meadville will play in the exact same region next year. Conneaut will play in Region 6 alongside Corry and perennial state powers Mercyhurst Prep, Villa Maria and Girard.
“It’s kind of like the Browns versus the Steelers,” Stevenson said about the MASH-CASH clash. “Throw the records out, it’s going to be a battle every time. I think we have something pretty good going on here. Hopefully, we can keep something going.
“A league battle would be nice, but whatever. We’re not going to whine about it.”
Litwiler led the Eagles, who were 13 of 65 from the field, with 11 points and nine rebounds. Lindsey Shidemantle added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Cadi McCoy finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds for MASH, while Schweter finished with six points and 17 rebounds.