By Jim Hunter
Special to The Meadville Tribune
Minutes after Conneaut’s 45-23 loss to state-ranked Hickory on Saturday night, Eagles head coach Bill Stevenson had a grin on his face.
“My girls showed a lot of fight ... I am extremely proud of them,” he said after his Eagles were eliminated by the Hornets — ranked seventh in the state in Class AAA by the Harrisburg-Patriot News — in the PIAA District 10 Class AAA playoffs at Kennedy Catholic High School.
Conneaut finished with an 19-4 record, while Hickory’s perfect season remains intact at 23-0.
Accepting the underdog role, the Eagles showed a lot of spunk in the first half and only trailed 20-13 at halftime. The second half was a different story as Hickory picked up the tempo and leading scorer Nikki Arbanas scored 10 of her 14 points.
The defensive-minded Hornets held the Eagles to only two fourth-quarter points.
Not blinking an eye, Stevenson said, “Hey, they are a very, very good team. Their defensive pressure gave us trouble. We weren’t able to get very many good looks. I don’t know what our shooting percentage was, but I know we didn’t get off as many shots as we normally do.”
The optimistic Stevenson had an upset on his mind when the game began ... and the Eagles started off in that direction.
After Challen Litwiler scored on a drive, Brook Phelps netted two free throws to give Conneaut a 6-5 lead with 2:57 remaining in the first quarter.
Stevenson was pumping his fists.
Unfortunately, it was Conneaut’s only lead in the game.
Scoring five straight points, Hickory grabbed a 14-8 lead at the beginning of the second quarter and gradually built its lead.
Arbanas basically delivered the KO punch in the third quarter. Bombing in consecutive 3-pointers and following with a driving layup, the Hornets increased their lead to 37-19 with 56 seconds showing on the clock.
With 39 seconds left in the game, Stevenson gave his starting seniors — Litwiler, Kristen Baker, Libby Clement and Kim Litwin — their due by taking them out of the game and allowing them to get a well-deserved ovation from the Eagles’ fans.
Litwiler and Baker had phenomenal high school careers — each eclipsing the 1,000-point barrier. Stevenson reflected on his two star players:
“Both Challen and Kristen are great kids. They had great attitudes. They left it on the floor every time they played. I know I am a better human being because of them. They are two special girls.”
Baker and Litwiler led Conneaut with nine and eight points, respectively. Litwiler also grabbed a team-high six rebounds.
Hickory will play Mercyhurst — which defeated Franklin, 59-39 — Wednesday at a site and time to be determined.