Story by John Blake
Photos by JimmyDphotos.net
North Royalton head girls basketball coach Steffani Cicerchi has witnessed a great deal of maturity from her girls over the course of the last year.
The improvement during crunch time was no more evident than during the Lady Bears' 49-48 win over Magnificat Saturday afternoon in the annual Fight or Flight Invitational at Twinsburg High School.
Clinging to a one-point lead with less than a minute remaining, Magnificat's Phoebe Sterba drained a 3-pointer to put the Blue Streaks on top. It was a temporary punch in the gut to the Lady Bears, but they quickly brushed it off.
Following a big defensive stand, North Royalton raced to the other end in transition. The ball ended up in the hands of senior guard Abby Miduri, who made a nice move into the paint, drew a foul and converted the 3-point play for the eventual game-winner with 10 seconds left.
Cicerchi said she thought about calling a timeout after the defensive rebound, but decided against it when the Lady Bears pushed the ball up the floor.
"She's a senior, and she's been in a lot of big games," she said of Miduri's game-winning play.
Magnificat had to go the length of the court on the next possession. Senior Bridget Pryatel threw up a shot from beyond the arc, but it clanked off the backboard as time expired.
"We had a couple mental breaks during the course of the game, but that's really been our focus this year: the mental toughness," Cicerchi said.
"This game, we could have easily folded but they kept their heads up and they did what they needed to do to win the game."
Magnificat had the upper hand early, jumping out to a 14-7 lead in the opening quarter. But the Lady Bears responded with 10 unanswered points into the second period.
That fight and grit helped force 20 Magnificat turnovers over the course of the game and challenged the Blue Streaks the whole way through.
"I thought North Royalton played really well," said Magnificat head coach Meghann Hubach.
"They work hard, they're fundamental and disciplined in what they do," she said. (Alison Smolinski) came up with some big shots in that third and fourth quarter and they played really well. We hurt ourselves with the turnovers."
The junior led all scorers with 20 points and hit three second half 3-pointers. The first halted an 8-3 Magnificat run in the third quarter, and her last one gave North Royalton a 44-42 advantage with 3:40 remaining in the fourth.
Just like with the rest of the team, Cicerchi said she has been pleased with the way Smolinski has stepped up in pressure situations.
"When she's not thinking she can just go and play," she said. "I tell her she's her own worst enemy sometimes, she's grown a lot. I have a lot of kids this year who have stepped up versus last year where they would've folded."
Magnificat, now 6-2, was led by sophomore Elise Keshock's 12 points. North Royalton's Julianne Lebo finished with 10.
In the tightly-contested matchup, neither team led by more than five after the first quarter. Magnificat had its runs and North Royalton had its fair share of big shots to keep it within striking distance.
"Good teams fight back, and we talked about how this would be a game of runs," said Hubach. "They were the better team today. I give them a lot of credit, they played really well. They didn't roll over."
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