Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Throughout the 2013-14 basketball season, the Lakewood Rangers had numerous obstacles to overcome if they wanted to repeat as West Shore Conference champions.
On Wednesday night, Lakewood cleared that final hurdle and took home the hardware.
With arch nemesis Rocky River giving them all they could handle, the Rangers found themselves in the midst of yet another defensive struggle with a determined band of Pirates. But their offense awakened just enough in the second half in a 34-28 win that clinched the team's second-straight WSC crown.
"Tonight, we had senior leadership in the second half," said Lakewood senior guard Erin Hoffert after she and her teammates cut down the nets.
"The first half was a little rough, and lately a lot of our shots haven't been falling," admitted Hoffert, one of six seniors on the Lakewood squad. "I think everyone really stepped up in the second half and played hard defense on them.
"Defense is really what wins our games for us, not necessarily offense. Actually, last year we were a really good defensive team, and a lot of our baskets were fast breaks and running the floor. We had more of that in the second half tonight," she said.
Fellow senior Tori Milicevic started in place of junior Madison Clause, who was injured in the team's previous game with Magnificat. She led Lakewood with nine points and seven rebounds.
"It feels fantastic to win it," Milicevic said.
"It's a repeat from last year, and I couldn't feel any better right now," she said. "I've started before, but I was thinking to myself that I really needed to step up, take Madison's place and work as hard as she does.
And how did winning a second title feel compared to winning the first?
"It's different, but I would say it feels just as good as the first one. Winning never gets old," she added with a smile.
But the winning didn't come easy, with the Pirates playing in a tough zone defense that held Lakewood to six baskets in the first half. And with the two teams tied at 14-14 after 16 minutes of play, River had thoughts of getting another win over the Rangers and taking a series sweep.
In fact, Pirate sophomore Nicole Popovich got the Pirates rolling early in the second half with a 3-pointer to give River a 17-14 lead. But Lakewood began to find its shooting touch and went on a 13-0 run that turned the game around.
Milicevic scored on a drive for two, then senior guard Maggie Rowell got a steal for two as the Rangers took the lead for good at 18-17. Another Rowell fast break hoop and a drive down the lane by sophomore Mallory Shaw gave the home team its biggest lead of the night at 22-17 and forced River head coach Dave Murphy to call timeout.
But Shaw countered with a pair of free throws, then senior Megan Barrett scored on an offensive rebound to give Lakewood a 26-17 lead as the third quarter came to an end.
The Pirates went on a run of their own early in the fourth quarter and pulled all the way back to within two points, 29-27, on another Popovich score. But the Rangers got a Ryann Greenfield free throw and a baseline jumper from Milicevic to push the lead back out to five with 1:44 left in the game.
A Carolyn Farling free throw was the only point River managed in the final 3:42.
"Our offense wasn't very good tonight, but our defense was pretty good," said Murphy, whose team fell to 11-8 overall and 8-4 in the WSC.
"We've got to get back better on transition, but I thought we played well in our zone," he said. "But when they spread us out at the end, it was tough because they're so much quicker than we are."
But as happy as Murphy was with his defense, he showed just as much concern about his offense, which generated just 10 baskets in the game.
"We need to score more. We need more people to score, and we just can't rely on Popovich," he said.
"We just talked in the locker room about how it's time to start thinking about the off season and getting better. We need more than one shooter on this team. If we're a one-dimensional team with her doing all the scoring, how easy is it for that team to guard us?
"I want to have two scorers, three scorers. But hey, if we're fortunate enough to beat Elyria Saturday, then we're right back here to play Lakewood again in the second round of the tournament," he added.
Popovich led all scorers with 16 points while pulling down six rebounds. Farling added five points and five rebounds off the bench.
But the night belonged to the Rangers, though Hoffert admitted her team's repeat was no easy task.
"It was nice the first time around because we came in and shocked the system," she said. "This time around it was harder to do because it was like we had a target on our backs, everyone was coming for us. Everyone in the conference was giving us their best shot.
"Winning two conference titles in a row is a hard thing to do. I know we have good enough players who are hard working and will win another championship next year," she added.
Lakewood head coach Mike Harper echoed Hoffert's thoughts on how difficult his team's repeat performance was.
"I'm very proud of them," said Harper, whose team moved to 12-1 in the WSC. "I told them early on that to win a conference title is a tough thing to do, and that to win it back-to-back is really tough.
"Every night, you're getting everybody's best shot," Harper continued. "That's true. You hear that cliche all the time on TV from teams that have been successful, and how much tougher it is the second time. People know what you do, they know your tendencies.
"We came in this season without Mikayla Harper, and that really caused an adjustment in our dynamics. Not that I didn't think we were talented enough to still compete and do well in the conference, but it really did change things. Then the other day, we lose Madison with an injury.
"But these girls, they're tough. All that stuff I teach about mental toughness, it's not always easy. But they don't stop fighting, and I appreciate that," he said.
Harper went on to praise his seniors, then tip his cap to the younger players on his team.
"Our six seniors were part of the beginning of us trying to change what Lakewood girls basketball was about," he said.
"Lakewood girls basketball was once very good, and I always remind them of that. When I had this idea of changing the culture and getting the program back to that level, they really bought in. I'm so proud of them," he said.
"And we needed our young players to step up. I'm very, very proud of them. We needed them, and I think we saw a couple of them grow up tonight," he added.
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