COLUMBUS – No disrespect to Youngstown Boardman, but the biggest obstacle West Chester Lakota West faced Friday was getting to its game with the Spartans. Once there, the Firebirds rolled to a 62-42 win in a Division I girls basketball state semifinal at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center.
Lakota West faces Southwest Ohio rival Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame in Saturday’s state final. Tip off is slated for 8:30 p.m.
“To be quite honest with you I was more concerned about getting here safely on the bus,” Lakota West head coach Andy Fishman said half-jokingly. “(Our bus driver) Frank (Blue) did get us here safely, but there were a couple times it got crazy there.”
Despite taking nearly two hours to get to the Schott from their Reynoldsburg hotel, the Firebirds added to their lofty credentials once inside.
Ranked No. 14 in the latest USA Today Super 25 poll, Lakota West improved to 26-1 behind a plethora of options – one being Ms. Basketball winner Amber Gray.
The 6-foot-1 wing had a game-high 20 points and showed why Tennessee coach Pat Summitt is pleased to have her in Knoxville next season.
Gray led a Lakota West attack that had 10 players register points, including junior post Alexis Rogers who logged 13. The Firebirds shot 50-percent in the first half as they opened up a 34-24 lead at the break.
“They shot the ball very, very well and they made us do things that we didn’t want to do defensively,” Boardman coach Ron Moschella said. “They threw a lot of people at us. They really hit it early on and it affected our play.”
In the third quarter things worsened for Boardman.
The Spartans went nearly five minutes without scoring, before Emily Abraham hit a 3-pointer with 3:02 to play in the period. It was the only points Boardman scored in the quarter.
Lakota West had no such problem putting the ball in the basket.
Ahead 44-27 after three quarters, the Firebirds opened up their largest lead, 54-32, with 4:10 to go. Boardman never trailed by less than 14 the rest of the way.
Michigan State recruit Courtney Schiffauer was the Spartans lone player in double-digits with 15 points. Boardman shot 36-percent for the game (13-of-36), hit just three of 15 3-pointers and committed 21 turnovers.
Lakota West outrebounded the Spartans 29-27 and outscored them 11-1 in second chance points.
“I thought (the game) was very physical,” Moschella said. “And I didn’t think we were as physical. That’s my opinion. That’s the way the game’s played. It’s seen one way and I saw it a different way and what can you say. If you let our kids play I think we’re ok.”
After losing in the regional the last two years, Lakota West plays for its first state title Saturday.
“We have a great opportunity.” Fishman said. “We’re playing for a state championship tomorrow – hopefully, weather allowing. We’ll be ready for anything.”
Gray spoke candidly about her college decision and why she chose the Volunteers. Ohio State was her second choice.
“My two top schools were Ohio State and Tennessee,” Gray said. “I took my trip to Tennessee and fell in love with it. When you walk onto campus and it’s all about the women’s basketball program it kind of gets to you. Unlike (Ohio State) where it’s all about the football team or the men’s program. And who wouldn’t want to play for coach Summitt if you had the opportunity to.”
The crowd for the Division I semifinals was sparse thanks to the winter storm that covered the state in snow. Although Boardman had a solid following, many Lakota West fans were absent. Those red and black clad fans that did make the haul from Cincinnati said the journey took upwards of four hours on Interstate 71.
The Firebirds were forgiving.
“We’re a girls basketball team so we’re not used to having a bunch of fans there every single game and I think that’s something we feed off of,” Gray said. “We’re not too worried if we have 1,000 fans or one fan, it’s not going to affect the way we play. We’re just going to go out and play the way we’ve been taught.”
The state final match up between Lakota West and Mount Notre Dame is a rematch of the season opener, which the Firebirds claimed 61-55. The Cougars opened the season 2-2 and have since won 23 straight.
Lakota West didn’t offer up any bulletin board material.
“We’re here and that is what’s in our control,” Fishman said. “We have prepared all year to play whoever is in the finals with us. (If it is MND) than we’d be ending the season like we started.”
Said Gray: “Once you step onto the floor you can’t worry about who you’re playing against. You have to play your game. If we play our game then we should come out on top.”
Boardman was never ranked in the state poll this year and its seven losses heading into the tournament were the most by far of any team in the semis regardless of division. The Spartans were also just 4-3 in their final seven games and were blown out in the last game of the regular season by North Canton Hoover (69-42).
That shellacking provided the spark needed for a run at the state title.
“The pivotal point was when we lost to Hoover by 27 points,” Moschella said. “We put a sign in the locker room that we had 21 days to play them again. These kids put in a lot of time and effort. They never wanted to be embarrassed like that again. They worked endlessly in the gym.”
Boardman got its revenge by beating Hoover 38-37 in the regional semifinals.
“No one gave us any credit,” Schiffauer said. “No one thought we were even going to get close to state so it was a great accomplishment for our team to get here but it would have been nice to keep going. We played hard. That’s all you can do.”
Schiffauer is 0-2 in games at the Schottenstein Center (Boardman also lost in the 2005 semifinals), but she’ll have more opportunities with Michigan State.
“She’s just a great basketball player and she’s been a great basketball player for us for four years,” Moschella said. “She brings her lunch pail to work and that’s what she did for us for four years. I’m very proud of her and I’m going to miss her. She’s going to go to Michigan State and I’m going to watch her play and I think she’s going to have a spectacular career there too.”
Said Schiffauer: “I’m just kind of sad now that this is over, but I am looking forward to playing at the next level.”