First place Cuyahoga Heights has the best defense in the Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division but it was Independence that was stingiest in a 25-22 win on Thursday.
The Blue Devils allowed just five second half points and overcame an eight point halftime deficit to knock off their rivals.
“We knew the first team to 30 was probably going to win,” said Independence coach Mike Marcinko. “Unfortunately neither team got to 30.”
Cuyahoga Heights, which has allowed an average of 25.79 points in 14 league contests, held a 5-3 advantage after the first quarter and led 17-9 at halftime.
The Blue Devils had their chances but couldn’t convert in the first half. It was a different story in the final 16 minutes of play.
“In the first half we thought we executed well but we left points out there,” Marcinko said. “We missed shots and put backs and that resulted in us being down at halftime. Every possession is at a premium in those games but they only had 17 so it's not like we played horribly. We had opportunities and didn't capitalize. I think the reverse happened in the second half. They missed some shots but we played pretty tough defense to hold them to five points.”
The win was the fifth straight for the Blue Devils, who have now won eight of their last nine to improve to 13-6 overall and 10-4 in the CVC.
“Coming into the season, we had a lot of injuries and a lot of young players,” said senior Sophie Piteo, who finished with two points. “As the team got healthier, the younger girls got more experience and really got the hang of things. We've become closer and have learned how to play with each other. With help from our coaching staff, everyone is starting to understand their role on the team. We are able to work together in a way that gets the job done.”
Of all the wins, this one was extra special for Piteo and senior Megan Kuczmarski, who scored four points.
“Playing your rivals is always a big game but with this being our (the seniors) last game against Heights, beating them in their gym made it even bigger,” Piteo said. “You can feel your hard work being paid off when you get a win after being down in the first half, especially with a team like Heights.”
While the seniors collected a win in their final game against their rivals, it was Independence’s underclassmen that delivered the clutch shots in the third quarter as the Blue Devils mounted their comeback.
Sophomore Erica Esper hit a pair of 3-pointers and freshman Haylee Dmitruk sank another shot from behind the arc to help Independence take a 22-20 lead in the fourth quarter.
“Erica Esper is probably our best perimeter shooter but she's still learning the game and trying to play at pace,” Marcinko said. “This was a good game for her to play because the pace wasn't at breakneck speed. She had two crucial threes in the third quarter that really got us going.”
Marcinko at halftime drew up the play that led to Esper’s first three.
“We ran a set right out of halftime that we talked about and we executed it perfectly,” Marcinko said. “Hanah Walker spotted Erica at the 3-point line and she nailed it. That got us going right off the bat.”
The three 3-pointers forced Cuyahoga Heights to loosen up their defense and that allowed Independence to attack the basket, which led to a few layups and some free throw opportunities.
“They couldn't totally pack it in so we were able to get some fouls and get to the line and get a layup here and there,” Marcinko said. “Down the stretch we did a nice job. They tried to 1-3-1 half court trap us and scramble and trap everything. Haylee and Sophie and Reni (Kaiser) and Hanah and everybody did a really good job of moving the ball and moving themselves trying not to get trapped and get fouls. We took care of the possessions.”
Walker hit a layup and a late free throw to give the Blue Devils a three-point lead with 12 seconds left in the game.
Marcinko drew up a defense to keep Cuyahoga Heights’ sharpshooters, Emma Lipkowski and Brooke Wilson, from getting a good look at the basket from behind the arc.
“We went nose to nose on Lipkowski and nose to nose on Brooke Wilson,” Marcinko said. “We said if anybody else is going to shoot it we'll take our chances. They got a shot off but it was a two so even if it went in it wouldn't have mattered. The girls really did a nice job on the fly of getting after it and digging in and getting a stop.”
Kaitlin Richards scored a team-high seven points for Independence. Esper finished with six and Dmitruk closed out the game with three.
Lipkowski scored a game-high 11 for the Redskins, who dropped to 16-3 overall and finished as the CVC Valley Division champion with a 12-2 mark in league play.