By Dan Woodlock
Times-Junction Sports Editor
In a matter of three days, Shelby went from an ally to an obstacle in the Lady Flashes’ Northern Ohio League championship aspirations.
The Shelby Lady Whippets knocked off Norwalk on Saturday to open the door for Willard to battle their way into at least a share of the NOL title.
But it was Nashail Shelby and the Ontario Lady Warriors that nearly threw a spear into everything, as the Lady Flashes had to fight off a late burst by Shelby and four quarters of fury by the Lady Warriors to pull out a 44-38 victory at the O-Rena.
The win propelled Willard (18-3) to their first NOL girls basketball title since the 2002 season, as they completed their conference schedule with 9-3 mark. The winner of Saturday’s match-up between Bellevue and Shelby, both sitting at 8-3 in league play, will earn a share of the title, with Norwalk (also 8-3 in NOL action) having a chance to make it a three-way tie if they can defeat Ontario Saturday.
Nashail Shelby led OHS with 11 points and sank a pair of three-point field goals in the final 3:44 of play that tied the game at 38. She added a key diving defensive rebound that gave Ontario (11-8, 5-6) a chance to burn clock and set up a shot that would have given them their first lead since a 4-2 edge at the start of the game.
But after Willard endured a night plagued by 24 turnovers, particularly within their halfcourt offensive sets, it was the Lady Flashes who forced Ontario to throw the ball away with 43.5 seconds to play, with WHS clinging to a 39-38 lead.
Madie Secor was fouled and nailed a pair of free throws, two of five buried by Willard in the final 42.8 seconds of play.
Senior posts, Gabi Baldridge and Maddy Crawford, put their stamp on the victory, as Baldridge poured in 23 points (on 10-of-14 shooting) with 12 rebounds, while Crawford added 13 points and nine boards. Willard sank 54 percent of their shots from the field (18-of-33), while Ontario managed to hang in despite converting just under 30 percent from the field (14-of-47).
“We knew we’d be in a dogfight over here tonight,” said Willard Head Coach Jon Dawson. “I remember looking at this game at the beginning of the season and us talking about ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be able to come here to play this game with an NOL championship on the line’. Ontario was definitely ready to go tonight and they got after us and gave us everything we wanted. But hopefully tough games like this will make us tougher for the tournament run we want to go on.”
Emily Yeager, who was not yet eligible for Ontario in the Lady Warriors’ 62-38 loss in Willard due to OHSAA transfer rules, chipped in with nine points on the night, including the final six points of the first half (on a three-point field goal and a put-back three-point play) that closed a 22-12 WHS lead down to 22-18.
The Lady Flashes limited Yeager to just 1-of-8 shooting in the second half. But turnovers continued to hound Willard, as they followed up 13 in the first half with four more in the first 1:37 of the third quarter.
Ontario was able to whittle their way back within one (22-21) on a bucket by Madeline Collins, capping a 9-0 run that bridged the second and third periods.
Ashlee Tuttle’s drive and dish to Baldridge for two snapped a scoreless drought of 4:59 for the Lady Flashes and sparked a surge of seven straight points for WHS to establish a seven-point advantage (29-21). Willard’s defense began to turn the tables, creating five Ontario turnovers in the run.
But two late free throws by Maddie Payne and a three by Shelby pulled OHS within three (29-26) entering the fourth quarter. The Lady Flashes held a lead that fluctuated between one and five points in the first five minutes of the final period.
Shelby’s final three-ball tied the game at 38, but Baldridge sank 1-of-2 shots from the foul line to claim a 39-38 edge.
Willard’s 5-of-6 free throws salted away the win, after a sluggish 3-for-9 start at the charity stripe. The Lady Flashes couldn’t find their way to the line through the first three periods, as they missed their only two attempts of the first half and converted their first free throw on a three-point play by Crawford with 2:09 left in the third.
Tuttle and Secor each distributed four assists in the win.
Willard completed their league title chase after having to fight back from losses in their first two NOL match-ups this season--Shelby at home and Norwalk on the road.
“You have to give a huge amount of credit to these kids,” said Dawson. “We knew we had kind of a younger bunch this season, but they’ve all filled in their different roles extremely well. I love this coaching staff, and our kids kept buying into what we were teaching them.
“This team has really grown together these past two-to-three months,” he continued. “I’m blessed to have this group of kids and I said in the locker room that I have the greatest kids and coaching staff around.”
Willard 52, Bellevue 38
The Lady Flashes locked down Bellevue defensively and pulled off a season sweep of the Lady Red, winning by 14 on Saturday in Bellevue to stay alive in the NOL title pursuit.
Willard held Bellevue (15-5, 8-3) to just 12 first half points and just 27 percent shooting for the contest (12-of-44). Conversely, the Lady Flashes put four players in double figures offensively, led by Ashlee Tuttle’s 11 points. Madie Secor, Maddy Crawford and Gabi Baldridge each added 10 points, with Crawford and Baldridge tallying double-doubles with 12 and 11 rebounds, respectively.
Freshman Payton Vogel was the only Lady Red player to reach double figures on offense, as she scored 12 points, but missed 13 of her 16 shots from the field. Jenna Strayer was held to just nine points and just seven shots from the field.
Willard used an 8-0 second quarter run that covered more than four minutes to build a 17-10 lead. The Lady Flashes went to the half ahead, 19-12.
“We knew we had to get off to a good start,” said Coach Dawson. “It’s always a struggle over here. I thought our defense was outstanding, especially in the first half. Our rotations were good and we had nobody in foul trouble. To hold them to just 12 points was great.”
Bellevue was held without a three-point field goal through the first three quarters (0-for-8) and connected on their first and only three-ball on a jumper by Lauren Turner just over one minute into the fourth that pulled the Lady Red back within four, at 30-26.
But Willard closed the game on an 18-7 run. Baldridge, who went 0-for-5 from the field in the first half, was perfect on three field goals and two free throws in the second half.
NOTE: The Lady Flashes drew the two-seed in Sectional play and will face 14th-seeded Huron on Tuesday, February 16 at 7 p.m. at Lexington High School. The winner faces Wynford at 6:15 p.m on Saturday, February 20.