Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
The first season of the Berea-Midpark girls basketball program was one to remember. The Titans won the 2013-14 Southwestern Conference championship and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the Division I tournament.
Lakewood had a solid year as well as the Rangers won their second-straight West Shore Conference crown. They also fared well in tournament play, advancing all the way to the Medina District title game.
What would be in store for the two teams in 2014-15? Fans from both schools got a good look Wednesday night at Bob Purdy Gymnasium.
Berea-Midpark, playing in its season opener, shot the lights out in the first quarter and held on down the stretch for a hard-fought 63-59 over visiting Lakewood at Bob Purdy Gymnasium. The Titans nailed five 3-pointers in the first quarter alone, then made clutch plays in the final seconds to preserve the win.
The Titans, with no player taller than 5-9 listed on their roster, seemingly came out with one goal in mind:
Run their offense away from Lakewood's post tandem of 5-11 Madison Clause and 5-10 Savanajh Black. Oh, and some shoot 3-pointers in the process.
Junior Alexis Hope got things started as her 3-pointer early on gave Berea-Midpark a 4-1 lead. Soon thereafter, junior Zoranne Host, freshman Jada Marone and junior Savana Jankowski nailed treys of their own to give the home team a quick 13-7 advantage.
Lakewood caught up on a Ryan Greenfield layup, then took a 15-13 lead on a bucket inside from 5-11 sophomore Christina Kamkutis. But a pair of free throws from Hope, a jumper from Marone and a 3-pointer from Jankowski put the Titans back on top at 2-15.
"The first quarter of your first game, you never know what to expect," admitted Titans head coach Kevin Braaten, whose team shot 46 percent in the first quarter.
"We knew we had that in us. But to be honest with you, I'm surprised with how well we shot it right from the get go," Braaten said. "That was obviously one of the biggest keys of the game. Lakewood has a great team, and we knew they would keep on fighting.
"We tried to give them the game, but we were able to make enough plays and do enough in the fourth quarter to hold on," he added.
Lakewood, coming off a season-opening victory on the road against Stow, had two big runs the rest of the way. The Rangers, however, were never able to regain the lead.
The first run came in the second quarter. Trailing 27-17, Lakewood went on a 9-0 push as Kamkutis scored six of those points inside. But the Titans were able to hold the lead, using a 6-0 run to close out the half. A Marone jumper gave the home team a 35-28 halftime lead.
The Berea-Midpark lead grew to 45-32 late in the third quarter on a drive for two from freshman Lexi Scarton. But as the game moved into the fourth quarter, the Rangers began to chip away at that lead by turning up the defensive pressure.
Down 60-52, junior Mallory Shaw hit both ends of a one-and-one with 2:02 left in regulation. Then with just over a minute left, Clause scored inside to cut the Berea-Midpark lead to four.
Then tension mounted when Greenfield hit a pair of free throws to make it 60-58 with 33.5 seconds left. But the Titans responded by passing through the Ranger press for a Host layup. A free throw from Marone with 12.9 ticks left made it 63-58 and allowed the Titans to breath a bit easier.
"In addition to the shots they hit, and they hit them early and often, what they really did was speed the game up," said Lakewood head coach Mike Harper, whose team committed 20 turnovers.
"They sped the game up to a tempo that I don't think we responded well to," Harper continued. "Our strength against this team, we thought, would be on the interior. But our guards never really settled down to take advantage of some of that.
"And for a guard-oriented team that wasn't that big, they were pretty physical. They took the fight to us," he said.
Berea-Midpark, which had 24 turnovers, was led by Jankowski's 19 points and nine rebounds. Host had 16 points, while Marone added 15 in her varsity debut.
"With Marone, who's a freshman, and Host and Hope, they've got some quickness," Harper said.
"We've got size, but when you try to match that up against that kind of quickness it's a tough matchup. That's why we wanted to settle the tempo down and try to make an effort to get the ball inside. But they were ready. They were ready for what we were bringing.
"We couldn't sustain a thing offensively," Harper said.
Greenfield, a sophomore guard, led the Rangers with 19 points and was a force under the boards as well with nine rebounds. Kamkutis added 10 points, while Clause added eight points and eight rebounds. Black was a force under the boards as well with eight rebounds at the Rangers won the board battle 41-38.
"I love Lakewood's team, and Coach Harper does a great job with his kids," Braaten said. "We knew they were not going to quit because they're tough kids. We knew their experience was going to make a difference.
"We were trying to calm our kids down in the fourth quarter, but that's basketball. I've seen a lot of games where teams go through stretches like that. It's part of the learning experience," he said.
Braaten also said his team's defensive effort paid big dividends despite the size disadvantage.
"We have very little size, so we have to keep teams off balance," Braaten said. "We have to mix up our presses, along with our zones and man defenses. We can't get stuck in a half-court game against a team like Lakewood because they'll just kill us inside."
"I thought we did about as well as we could against their two bigs. They're both really good offensive rebounders. Our kids worked hard in there and attempted to box them out every time. I thought we held our own," he said.
In the other locker room, Harper felt his team could use Wednesday night's loss as a learning experience.
"I told the girls I'm OK with tonight as long as we learned something," Harper said.
"I know it's cliche, but this is a marathon. With the talent on this team, we're really looking at it as a marathon and not a sprint. I told the girls this was one to learn from. That's why we built this schedule. It's probably the toughest schedule we've played.
"These are the situations we have to learn from to get us ready for the season ahead of us. But we've got to get better, and we know it," he concluded.
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Click on the cameras below to view Larry's photos and video highlights from this game: