Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
After three straight losses, the Westlake girls basketball team needed a win.
Early on in the fourth quarter against North Royalton, the Demons were staring loss No. 4 square in the face. A Nikki Newman basket inside had given the visiting Bears a 45-39 lead and some momentum heading into the final six minutes of play.
But despite the deficit, Westlake’s pressure defense was taking its toll on the young North Royalton squad. As a result, the Demons took advantage of numerous Bear turnovers down the stretch and scratched out a 52-49 win Wednesday night in non-conference play.
“That was a big win for us,” admitted Westlake head coach Chip Weiss. “It’s been like this the past couple of games where we just couldn’t hit any shots. Nothing has been falling in for us.
“Our kids play so hard. Finally, some good things happened for them tonight,” he added.
Westlake had taken a slim 37-36 lead in the third quarter on a rebound for two by senior guard Liz Kobe. North Royalton, however, regained the lead on an Abby Miduri 3-pointer and proceeded to go on a 6-2 run.
Newman’s bucket topped off that run, and the Bears seemed to have the game under control. But turnover after turnover stalled the run and gave Westlake an opportunity to answer.
With 4:55 left in the game, senior Maggie Zimmerman - in just her second game back from an injury - drilled her third 3-pointer of the game. It was the first Demon score after a four-plus minute scoring drought.
Just 25 second later, freshman forward Monica Fury split a pair of free throws to make it 45-43, Royalton. Then with 4:00 to go, she scored on an offensive rebound to tie the game. After a Royalton timeout, sophomore Sami Minor drove down the lane for two, giving the lead right back to the Bears.
But with the turnovers mounting, Royalton could not muster enough offense down the stretch to maintain that lead. In fact, the Bears failed to score during the next three minutes, and the Demons took advantage.
“I think we were in shape and wearing them down as the game went on,” Weiss said. “They scored less and less each quarter. We kept the pressure on, and their shots were starting to fall short.
“They rushed a lot of shots, just like we did in the first half. We reversed that in the second half and made a lot of layups and free throws that we missed in the first half. And I thought we controlled the tempo in the fourth quarter,” he added.
A pair of Zimmerman free throws tied the game at 47-47 with 3:14 left to play. Just 26 seconds later, the Demons converted a Bear turnover into a score inside by junior forward Madison Dunlap to take the lead for good.
In the final 1:17, Westlake faltered a bit at the line, making just three of seven attempts. But the Bears turned the ball over three straight times in the final minute. They didn’t score again until MacKenzi Matthews’ offensive rebound went through the net in the final seconds.
“We were two different teams from the first half to the second half,” said Royalton head coach Steffani Jaworski, whose team fell to 8-6 on the season.
“Offensively in the second half, we weren’t nearly as patient,” she said. “We settled for quick shots versus breaking down the defense by making seven or eight passes to get an open look. It was almost like it was a fire drill in here.”
For the game, the Bears committed 33 turnovers, eight of those coming in the fourth quarter. They had 13 miscues in the second quarter, but were still able to take a 30-25 lead into the halftime locker room.
When it was all said and done, Fury led the Demons off the bench with 15 points. Zimmerman, who had missed nine-straight games prior to her return against Amherst, had 15 points, while Kobe and fellow senior Rachel Collins each added nine.
Collins also had seven rebounds to lead the Demons, while Fury added five.
“It means a lot for us to get Maggie back,” Weiss said. “I mean, she hits a pair of 3-pointers right away to get us started in the first half. That gives us a lift and some confidence, and then we feed off that.
“You’ve got to have your best offensive player out there to win a game like this. She’s averaging 16 points a game for us, so we missed her tremendously. She’s just finally getting back to full health.
“Monica gives us a lot of help inside. We don’t have the presence of a post player, but she does everything we ask her to do. She has no fear. She just keeps battling each possession,” he added.
The Bears were led by sophomore Alison Smolinski, who had a game-high 17 points while pulling dowm seven rebounds. Miduri added 11 points, while senior Allison Steward chipped in with nine.
Sophomore Rachel Flis, the Bears’ 5-10 sophomore post player, was forced to the bench with foul trouble in the second half, but still led all rebounders with 11.
“We definitely struggled once our post player got into foul trouble,” Jaworski said. “That was a big turn in the game right there. They started to execute and score from the blocks, where earlier they couldn’t because we had her defending that.
“We had a lot of defensive breakdowns in the second half. But it’s mental. These games are tight, and you have to learn how to win. In having the lead for almost the entire game, you have to learn how to not play to lose.
“Unfortunately right now, we’re playing not to lose versus playing to win. We haven’t played a game in 14 days, so I was a little worried about how we would play tonight. In the first half we played well, but in the second half we got out-hustled,” she added.