By Pete Chiodo
OIL CITY —
With 19 wins on the season, the first year of existence for the Conneaut Area girls basketball team was unquestionably a success.
Its first appearance in the Class AAA playoffs, however, not so much.
The highly-touted Franklin Lady Knights ousted the Eagles 68-33 during a quarterfinal matchup on Saturday at Oil City High School.
“(Franklin’s) not No. 5 in the state by accident,” Eagles head coach Bill Stevenson said. “They didn’t make very many mistakes. And they just capitalized on ours. It’s a heck of a ball club.
“But I love our team. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. And we’re going to get better. We’re going to come back strong next year. I don’t know what will happen then, but we’re going to keep at it.”
Franklin, now 22-1 on the season, moves on to face Mercyhurst Prep. Mercyhurst defeated Slippery Rock 36-31 yesterday. A date and location for their semifinal pairing will be announced later.
Conneaut, meanwhile, ends its season at 19-4.
“The first playoff game is always the toughest,” said Franklin head coach Bill Hager. “You never know what can happen. Plus, you lose, you’re out. So we put a lot of emphasis on this game. We did not look beyond (Conneaut) one bit. And I think they’re very good. They would be a lot better if they played a Triple-A schedule instead of the ‘A’ schedule they are in. They have some great athletes and they’re very well coached. So this was a good win for us.”
It was Franklin’s game from tip to final buzzer. The Knights opened the affair with a 13-point scoring run. Laken Shields had back-to-back buckets. Angelina Starr converted a three-point play and knocked in a jumper. And Mara Benvenuti recorded a layup and a pair of freebies.
“We made some mistakes early and we kind of got into a little funk and lost some confidence,” said Stevenson. “And you can’t do that against a team that shoots like that and plays defense like that. That’s the best defense we’ve seen all year.”
Conneaut put on its own full-court press and that seemed to slow the Knights down a bit. The Eagles finally found the scoreboard on a put-back by Challen Litwiler. And they went on to outscore Franklin 7-5 over the last four minutes of the quarter, which ended with the Knights in front 18-7.
However, Franklin then began the second by scoring nine straight points. Shields had two more buckets. Starr hit a 3-pointer. And Benvenuti struck again.
During that stretch, Conneaut went five minutes before getting off a field goal attempt as Franklin’s defense harassed the Eagles into forking the ball over eight times.
“We made some unforced mistakes, but they forced so many,” said Stevenson. “Don’t take anything away from them. They’ve been doing what they’ve been doing all year, which is playing hard-nosed defense and hitting shots from all over the place.”
Franklin was up 27-7 by this point and that was too steep a hill to climb for the Eagles.
Franklin went into the half ahead 31-12, and led 46-19 after three quarters.
Starr ended up pacing the Knights with 17 points. Shields followed with 13 points. Haley Andres had 11 and Benvenuti scored nine.
The Knights were 19-for-21 from the foul line for the game. They also out-rebounded Conneaut 30-21. Benvenuti and Shields both had six boards.
For the Eagles, Litwiler led the way with 11 points. Kristen Baker had eight. Lindsey Shidemantle and Kimmy Litwin were next in line with four points each.