A spirited comeback at the end wasn’t enough to salvage the lapses throughout, and a very good Gilmour Academy team never let the Versailles Tigers off the ropes.
Columbus – It isn’t the story you want to write in situation likes this. There is no joy in Mudville (Versailles) today, like the story of the ‘Mighty Casey’.
A team that won 26 games, one that came so far, played so well, and accomplished so much with a special blend of talent and “esprit”, simply came up short Saturday, losing to the Gilmour Academy Lancers, 56-54, in the Division III championship at Value City Arena.
Jacki Stonebraker described it in so many words, as: 1) Breakdowns at inopportune times, 2) too many missed ‘bunnies’ at the game’s outset (those would come back to haunt), and 3) the best post player the Tigers had seen this year, and in a very long time.
6’3″ Naz Hillmon, a junior who actually plays bigger than her height, was simply unstoppable in the paint, regardless of who defended her. Equally adept at going to her left, or right, she scored 24 points, had 17 rebounds, a block, a steal, and dished out four assists. In short, she was the difference in the game.
Or at least one difference.
The other was the defensive effort that Gilmour threw at the Tigers, by far the toughest they’d seen on this tournament trail. For the first time in memory, someone actually harassed Kami McEldowney, causing her to pick up her dribble prematurely – or even dribble too much – because Gilmour did that good a job of shutting down the passing lanes to the post. Those easy lobs to Danielle Winner and Elizabeth Ording from games gone by? They weren’t there Saturday.
The Tigers got off to a predictable start, in terms of how they got this far. Camille Watren, the hot three-point shooter from the semi-final win over Eastern Brown, flared once again, hitting 3 of 5 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half. That was a good thing, because other points from other sources came hard.
No fewer than eight point-blank looks in the first half rolled off the rim as a result of Gilmour’s physical size and presence inside. The Tigers, who had had that propensity at times during the year, had it show up again at the worst possible time.
“They defended us well,” admitted Jacki Stonebraker, who found the courage to smile even in the face of such a disappointing finish. “Their guards did a great job of pushing too far out, where we couldn’t start our offense. We wanted to get some ball screens up top, but we couldn’t do that and with their ‘big’ inside and we couldn’t get any pick and rolls, either. It was a tough test for us today, but I’m still very proud of the way we came back.”
And come back they almost did.
Down by ten in the fourth quarter, somehow the Tigers clawed their way back into at least sight of the lead. Gilmour, a team that shot 47% from the floor throughout the day, shot a miserable 52% from the foul line as Versailles fouled to stop the clock and hopefully trade ‘ones’ for ‘twos’ and ‘threes’. Gilmour obliged. Hillmon, who hit 11 of 17 attempts from the field, hit just 2 of 7 from the line.
And a three-pointer from Ellen Peters with outside a minute to play, gave the Tigers a breath. Again they sent Hillmon to the line, and again she obliged. On the other end, Danielle Winner hit a pair of big free throws, a jumper from the foul line, and before you knew it the margin was four and ten seconds left to play.
After a timeout Versailles went with full court pressure to deny Gilmour getting the ball inbounds from under the Tigers’ basketball. That worked, too. A five-second call gave them the ball out of bounds with six seconds and on the ensuring possession Kami McEldowney squeezed across the baseline to lay one in and cut the margin to 56-54.
But with four seconds left there simply wasn’t time. Gilmour heaved one to half court where Camille Watren came up with the ball, but before she could dribble into any kind of shooting range the clock ran out, the horn sounded, and well…that was the story of the game, the dream, and the season.
In the post-game Stonebraker said all the right things, about the right people, and was customarily complimentary of a valiant opponent. She’s classy that way, because she’s played the game at such a high level; and she’s beaten some very good teams on better days – days in which the ball bounced better than it did on Saturday.
“Our girls were ready to play,” she said. “Twelve hours isn’t much time for us to prepare because we really like to break things down more than we could today, but we were ready to play. I know we missed some bunnies early, but throughout the game I really felt that we won the battle of the hustle plays, and we played with everything we had out there.
“If things had gone our way a couple of times on the glass, I think we could have pulled out a win. But the girls stayed together, they came back…and I know there were people who thought it was done with a minute to go. But these girls never said die and kept fighting back.”
As a testament to how well Gilmour really did defend, the same team that had played, and shot, in clinic mode on Friday struggled to shoot 34% from the field on Saturday. And just 6 of 16 from three-point range (37.5%). In close games, those little things that Jacki talks about come back to haunt, the ‘bunnies’, and even though the Tigers hit 12 of 18 from the foul line, the six misses they did have proved to be costly.
Gilmour, thanks to Naz Hillmon, finished shooting 48% from the field, hit 6 of 15 from behind the arc, and gave Versailles a real opening at the end by connecting on just 8 of 15 free throws in the fourth quarter…10 of 19 for the game (52%).
How close was it…really?
Well, the score was tied 7 times throughout, and there were 10 lead changes.
Versailles, for it’s missed opportunities early in the game, did cash in with 24 points on second chance points off offensive rebounds. In so many games previously that would have been the positive difference. But Saturday, there were too many other things to overcome.
They closed the year with their customary balance in scoring – Danielle Winner had 13, Camille Watren had 11, and McEldowney had 10.
But Gilmour had balance, too, only the top of their chain started with Hillmon’s 24, followed by 11 for Emily Kelley, and 10 for Sarah Bohn.
The Tigers finished 26-4 for the year and with a host of seasoned starters returning, headed by McEldowney and Danielle Winner. Needless to say they were already planning ahead for a return to the Final Four in ’18.
“From the first day of practice this year,” said Winner. “They were talking about getting here while I was still playing volleyball.”
It’ll be no different next year.
These are, indeed, good days for Versailles basketball – unique days – with six sets of sisters in the program. You can’t spell “family” and whatever it portends to winning success any better.
Only, it wasn’t a good enough day on Saturday.
They simply ran out of time…and ran into Naz Hillmon!