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Region I, Division 4 Girls Basketball: Cougars eyeing a regional prize
By STEVE FRANZELLO
Eastern View coach Mike McCombs just kept shaking his head after Thursday’s Region I, Division 4 playoff game at Courtland.
McCombs had just watched the undefeated Cougars overwhelm his team, 61–24, with a dazzling display of defense and athleticism and earn a berth in the Group AA state tournament next week.
Courtland (27–0) will host Grafton for the Region I title at 7 p.m. on Friday. If victorious, it would be the school’s first-ever regional championship in girls basketball. Both Grafton and Courtland will advance to the Division 4 state playoffs regardless of the outcome of Friday’s game.
Eastern View, which has never beaten Courtland in the regular season, but has posted two playoff victories over the Cougars, finished its season with a record of 20–7.
“I’m sure there’s a better team out there somewhere, but I haven’t seen it,” McCombs said. “That’s a really good team over there. They shoot the ball well, they play good defense and they’re well-coached.”
On a night when their shooting was not their strong point, the Cougars more than made up for the lack of offense with a relentless man-t0-man defense that recorded 23 steals and helped force 29 turnovers by the over-matched Cyclones.
Forwards Janae McNeal (24 points) and Jessica Hairston (19) paced the Courtland scoring, but this was not a night about who got the points.
Rather, it was about taking care of unfinished business against a team that had knocked them out of the regional playoffs last year in the same round.
“We just didn’t want a repeat of last year,” McNeal said. “We knew we were better than that and we wanted to prove it.”
Thursday’s performance, especially in the final three quarters, left little doubt about that.
After a competitive first quarter that ended with Courtland leading 15–12, the Cougars unleashed a stifling pressure defense that limited the Cyclones to just 12 points the rest of the game. In the second quarter, Eastern View missed all 15 of its shots from the field and scored just one point, a free throw by Taylor Shanks. Shanks provided half of the Cyclones’ offense with 12 points.
“We missed a lot of easy shots, especially early,” Cougars coach J.T. Nino said. “But what separated us, like it has for many games this season, was our man-t0-man defense.”
Courtland connected on just 4 of 17 shots from the field in the second quarter, but recorded seven steals and seven turnovers by Eastern View to help compensate for the lack of point production.
Imani Fennell scored with a nice assist from Hairston to start a 13–1 scoring run by the Cougars early in the period. McNeal buried a 12-foot jump shot to give them their first double-digit lead, and then Anika Trent made good on a pair of free throws to push the lead to 28–13 at the end of the half.
“I think it was just beginning-of-the-game jitters until we got into our offense and our normal flow,” Trent said. “After the first few minutes we got into it and our defense also really picked up.”
With the way their defense was playing, the 15-point lead was just the cushion the Cougars needed. But they weren’t finished yet.
In the second half they continued the pressure and just kept adding to their margin. McNeal scored 11 more points to go along with seven steals and 11 rebounds as Courtland raced to a 45–21 lead at the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, they held Eastern View to just three points—all by Shanks.
“Our game plan was to go right at them and try to get them in foul trouble,” McCombs said. “But they’re so disciplined and they’re very physical. We just kept turning the ball over.”
The pressure defense and athleticism have been a winning formula for Courtland’s eight-player-squad all season, and has been a big reason this team has won more games than any other one in the program’s history. Nino believes it can keep carrying them to new heights.
“We played really hard and I think the girls weren’t going to let anybody take this away from them tonight,” said Nino, who guided the Courtland boys to a state title three years ago.
“The program has never won a regional championship,” he added. “I think that is an achievable goal tomorrow and we’ll just take the next step from there.”
For the veteran Cougar players, who have tasted the state playoffs once already, they are ready to go further, but realize what they need to do.
“We have to stay focused and disciplined and realize what it takes to advance,” said Trent, the team’s lone senior. “It’s that time of the year.”
E. View 12 1 8 3 — 24
Courtland 15 13 17 16 — 61
Eastern View (20–7): Sherlina Bowles 2, Sadaja Clark 0, Allison Curry 0, Tanae Holmes 2, Ciara Jackson 4, Tiara Jackson 2, Randi Mauck 2, Taylor Shanks 12, Alexis Yates 0. Totals: 9 6-8 24.
Courtland (27–0): Janae McNeal 24, Megan Amrhine 2, Alicia Bova 0, Khari Whited 0, Arianna Bradley 3, Jessica Hairston 19, Anika Trent 9, Imani Fennell 4. Totals: 26 8-14 61.
Three-point goals: Eastern View 0. Courtland 1 (J. Hairston).
Steve Franzello: 540/374-5440