The Grove City girls basketball team has apparently had some practice against the full-court press since Christmas.
The last time the Eagles of Mercer County met the Eagles of Conneaut Area Senior High, the black and gold struggled against CASH’s high-pressure ‘D’, dropping the Conneaut Holiday Tournament championship to the hosts, 48-25.
In Monday night’s rematch, Grove City eventually found a way to break through, and halted Conneaut’s 15-game win streak with a 44-39 victory.
“We came here the last time and it looked like we had never seen a press before,” said Grove City head coach T.L. Eller. “We knew that they had excellent pressure and a lot of great athletes. It’s a very good basketball team. But we’ve been slowly improving as a basketball team. We’ve played the hardest schedule we’ve played since I’ve been coaching. I definitely think that, tonight, that preparation has paid off. ... This is a huge win.”
The victory improves Grove City’s record to 12-6 on the season. Conneaut suffers its second loss of the year and slips to 15-2.
“We had hustle, we had heart, we played hard,” said Conneaut head coach Bill Stevenson. “I was really impressed with that. And I’m proud of our girls. Even when we were down we just kept battling, we just couldn’t get the ball to drop in.
“We’d love to do it again,” he added. “The result might still be the same, but I’d love to play that hand again and see what happens. Our girls walked away knowing that they were in a game.”
It’s not that the CASH Eagles’ trademark defense failed them. Quite the opposite, in fact. They forced Grove City into 26 turnovers in the game, and induced four 5-second violations on inbound passes, including a couple during the crucial late stretch.
The issue was, once Conneaut got a turnover, worked the ball into position and took a shot, the ball would miss the hoop.
The local Eagles hit just 13-of-46 field goals, an average of 28.3 percent.
“Down the stretch we just missed a lot,” said Stevenson. “Well, we did early too. But when we had to make those, we didn’t.”
The only CASH player to score with any consistency was Challen Litwiler. She didn’t play in the first game against Grove City. For the rematch, she made up for lost time, notching 20 points.
Yet, Litwiler was the only member of the blue and gray to hit double-figures. Kristen Baker was the next highest with eight. And she looked to be dealing with some sort of leg issue in the second half, which even caused her to miss the first couple minutes of the fourth quarter.
Litwiler’s 11 points in the first half helped Conneaut lead 10-4 after one quarter and 20-18 at the half.
However, after some early sputtering, Grove City finally started to find some cracks in Conneaut’s press.
“It was nothing that we hadn’t prepared them for,” said Eller. “But we kept telling them, ‘We can put you in spots, but if you don’t make the plays it’s not going to happen against this team because the pressure is just so strong.’
“Finally, our guards, who are good ball handlers, they put the ball on the floor and dribbled through traffic and created things.”
Grove City turned the ball over just four times in the third quarter, and dominated that eight minutes of play 15-6. The visitors would go into the fourth leading 33-26.
Using that tenacious defense, Conneaut was able to whittle that lead down to two points (37-35) with 1:45 to play, and to three points (42-39) with 35 seconds to go. But each time CASH had a chance to close the gap entirely, they’d fail to score points.
“We went really hard defensively,” said Stevenson. “Offensively, we couldn’t put the ball in the hole. And some of them were easy — wide-open jumpers, wide-open layups.”
Grove City’s pressure certainly had something to do with it.
“No doubt about it,” Stevenson said. “If the gym is empty, you make those. But you know what, Grove City played pressure and we haven’t seen a whole lot of that in the last couple weeks.”
Grove City was led by Arianna Sprando with 10 points. Brenna Deyarmin followed with eight while Hailey Hall had seven.