Wildcats back in final 4

Waterford sends Fairfield Christian home, 47-42

RON JOHNSTON, The Marietta Times Waterford’s Megan Ball looks to pass to an open teammate during the Wildcats’ 47-42 regional championship game. Ball tallied 11 points in the victory, which advanced Waterford to this week’s Ohio Division IV State Championship in Columbus.

PICKERINGTON — For the fourth straight month of March folks in Columbus should be prepared for a sea of green and white heading their way for this week’s Girls Division IV State Basketball Championships.

The Waterford Lady Wildcats punched their ticket to the big dance for the fourth consecutive year with a hard-fought 47-42 win over the Fairfield Christian Lady Knights Saturday at Pickerington North High School.

Wildcat seniors Alli Kern and Megan Ball each completed double-doubles as the white and green fought off quite a challenge by the pesky Knights.

“It’s the regional championship and everyone wants to go to state and they (Fairfield Christian) fought awful hard,” said Waterford head coach Jerry Close. “We missed some shots early and I think it affected the way we played the whole game. They played hard and took us out of some things that we do but when you get this far in the tournament that is what happens.”

At times throughout the first half of the game it seemed as if the Wildcats were on the verge of pulling away from Fairfield Christian but each time the Lady Knights fought their way right back into the game.

Waterford led 10-4 at the end of the first quarter and quickly extended that lead by three thanks to a field goal and a free throw by Ball before FC answered with an 11-2 run that cut the lead to 15-13 midway through the second period.

Fairfield Christian continued to close the gap late in the second period and took their first lead of the game on a Maaug Adu bucket before Kern’s basket in the closing minute gave Waterford a 20-19 lead at the intermission.

Kern, who came into the game averaging nearly 15 points per game finished with just three in the opening half.

“We didn’t panic but I thought the girls played really tight tonight,” said Close, whose team defeated Portsmouth Notre Dame on Thursday night to set up the showdown with the Knights.

“The win the other night was big and I think maybe we took a little sigh of relief after that game but Fairfield Christian is a nice team that only lost three games the whole year… you can’t expect to come here and not get a game.”

Wildcat junior Rachael Adams opened the second half with a basket but Sophia Sterling answered with a triple for FC to tie the game at 22-22.

Kern’s triple and a rebound put-back by Ball quickly propelled the Wildcats back out to a five-point lead but the Knights scored eight of the next 12 points to close the gap once again to a single point at 31-30.

After Waterford’s Emily Kern and Sterling traded deuces, Alli Kern finished the the third period with a bucket to give Waterford a slim 35-32 lead heading to the final period of play.

Adams opened the final quarter with a nifty left handed shot and shortly after Ball blocked a Fairfield Christian shot and out-hustled the Knights to secure the loose ball only to be fouled trying to convert the lay-up.

Ball made good on both freebies to extend the lead to seven and once again it looked like the experienced Wildcats were on the verge of delivering a knock-out blow.

The Knight’s got a quick bucket from Hope Cluster who then came up with a big steal on defense and assisted a lay-up by Celeste Mershimer that turned into an old-fashioned three-point play to trim the lead to two with 3:30 to play in the game.

Morgan Lang answered for the Wildcats on an assist from Ball but Briana Smith drained a long three-pointer to make it a one point game.

Waterford dominated the game on the boards by a healthy 42-28 margin but none was bigger then an offensive rebound put-back bucket by Alli Kern to once again give her team a three-point lead.

Fairfield Christian quickly responded as Sterling drove strong to the basket and was fouled but came up empty at the charity stripe with an opportunity to knot the score with just two minutes to play.

Smith then came up with a huge steal for the Knights to give them possession of the ball with a little more than a minute to play.

The Knights called a time-out to plan their last minute strategy but Adams came up with a huge steal of the inbound pass to regain possession for the Wildcats.

After Waterford worked the clock down to 30 seconds they called a timeout of their own and inbounded the ball just inside the half-court line in front of their own bench.

With Fairfield Christian playing as tight of defense as possible, Kern sprinted towards the basket where Hayley Duff fired a perfect football style pass over the Knight defender and into the hands of Kern who laid it in while drawing a foul for perhaps the biggest Wildcat bucket of the season.

“I got a great pass from my teammate Hayley Duff,” said Kern, who made good on the free throw to extend the lead to four. “We didn’t know if it would be open because we weren’t sure if they would put a girl back.”

“We were going to set up a play out of that side-out but Alli broke free and Hayley got her the ball,” said Close of the game clinching play. “That was just as good as what we were going to do with the ball anyway.”

A couple of desperation shots were no good for FC down the stretch as the Wildcats clinched an amazing fourth straight regional title.

“They were a really good team offensively and defensively,” said Ball, who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. “The deeper into the tournament, the tougher the games get. You just have to work for every possession every time you go down the floor.”

Kern finished with game-highs in points with 17 and rebounds with 19 while Adams added 11.

“The game was a lot closer than what we knew we had to prepare,” said Kern, of her teams 26th consecutive win. “The game was close all the way through and we knew at the end we had to push through to get back what our goal is.”

While Fairfield Christian’s season comes to a heart-breaking end with a 24-4 mark, the (26-1) Wildcats are two wins away from winning their second state championship in three years.

“It feels great. Our seniors are great and they deserve it,” said Close, whose team will match-up against Minster Thursday at The Jerome Schottenstein Center at 3 p.m. “They have worked hard and you can see how many people we have here to see them. What an accomplishment it is to go from never being there (State) to four times in a row. These kids are amazing.”