VANDALIA — With a return trip to the Division III state tournament, the pressure is off the Versailles Tigers. Their opponents, though, aren’t so lucky.
Versailles returns its tenacious defense and tough offense to the state semifinals following a 47-37 win over Miami East in the regional finals on Saturday. Twenty five different teams have tried to beat the Tigers. None — including Miami East twice — have been able to do it.
“It’s a testament to how good Versailles is,” said Miami East coach Preston Elifritz. “We consider ourselves on that kind of level as a team. We just couldn’t get it done today.”
Second-ranked South Euclid Regina (24-2) has next against Versailles (26-0). The state’s top two teams battle 1 p.m. Friday at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center.
“Senior year, it’s been amazing,” said Versailles post and University of Dayton recruit Justine Raterman. “It’s been one of the best years of my life. It’s been so much fun this season. It’s been the perfect season.”
Miami East (24-2) tried to put an end to that Saturday in front of about 3,500 spectators at Vandalia-Butler’s Student Activity Center. Versailles never trailed in the game, but the Tigers also couldn’t shake the determined Vikings. Versailles led by as many as 11 points in the first half despite 14 turnovers. Versailles’ 14-6 advantage on the boards and East’s 7-for-23 shooting — including a handful of open jumpers — helped the Tigers take a 21-14 halftime lead.
Versailles lead reached 35-25 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter. But Vikings’ junior post Rebecca Leffel capped the third with a basket and started the fourth with a pair of free throws. Teammate Ashley Rice added three free throws to pull East to 35-32 with 6:13 left in the game. The lead twice reached six points over the next three minutes before East whittled it to 40-37 on Leffel’s 3-pointer with 2:56 to go.
But just like the team’s first meeting — a 61-44 win by Versailles on Jan. 26 — the Tigers ended the game with a run.
“As long as you keep the mentality that (every) possession is the most important possession in the game you can’t go wrong,” said Raterman.
Raterman hit all eight of her fourth-quarter free throws over the final 3:04 as the Tigers scored the game’s final seven points from the line. In the regular-season meeting, Versailles ended the game with a 14-0 run.
“People don’t panic when we get in certain situations,” Raterman said. “They know they have to step up and they know when to step up. Everybody knows their role. That’s what really pulled us through today.”
Junior forward Emily Eilerman scored seven points off the bench and had the Tigers’ lone fourth-quarter field goal, Karen Smith played solid defense on East’s standout guard tandem of Katie Denlinger and Katie Mengos and sophomore Megan Campbell added a pair of timely first-half field goals.
Raterman, meanwhile, continued her role as team leader. She hit all 11 of her free throws — the Tigers finished 18-of-28 as a team — for a game-high 20 points. Emily Bohman, feeling a bit under the weather, added 11 points.
“She told me after the game she had puked three times last night and she didn’t get a lot of sleep,” Versailles coach Jacki Stonebraker said of Bohman. “I said, ‘Oh that’s nice to know now.’”
The win was Versailles’ fifth straight over the Vikings: Two in the regular season and now three straight in the postseason. Leffel led the Vikings with 15 points. Seven of those came in the fourth.
Versailles overcame 21 turnovers overall with a 27-21 edge in rebounds (24-13 defensively) and a 14-of-28 shooting effort. Miami East, which had just nine turnovers, finished 14-of-46 from the field with few second chances. They also went 6-of-14 from the line.
“They just beat you in all aspects,” Elifritz said. “If you don’t make your free throws they’ll make you pay on the next possession. If you don’t rebound they’ll have somebody there. We’re going to learn from this game. This tape is going to be tough to watch. But we’ll go back and look at the little things we didn’t do.”
The Vikings lose just one starter (Denlinger) and no role players from this year’s team.
“You’re hope is even though you’re crushed today with the result, you do have a young group to work with next year,” Elifritz said. “Expectations for next year are there.”
Versailles, meanwhile, still gets to focus on this season. The Midwest Athletic Conference champions are making their fourth trip to Columbus overall (2007, 1998, 1992).
“The pressure was a lot more extreme this year,” Stonebraker said. “The pressure is off right now. The pressure was so extreme this year you could see it in their eyes. … I told them pressure is a privilege. You wouldn’t want to play for a team that hasn’t made it to a regional final. You wouldn’t want to play for a team that is not expected to win. These girls really rose to the challenge.”