PICKERINGTON, Ohio — Second verse, same as the first. A little bit louder and a little bit worse.
After scoring 32 points during last year’s 57-56 regional final win over Newark Catholic, senior Jenna Burdette equaled her career-high with 37 markers while lifting Eastern to its second straight Final Four berth with a 62-52 triumph in a rematch of the Division IV Region 15 girls basketball championship bout Saturday night at Pickerington High School North.
It was a battle between the top two D-4 teams in the final Associated Press poll, and the matchup didn’t disappoint this time either — as there were five ties and 19 lead changes over the course of the 32-minute struggle.
The top-ranked Lady Eagles, however, secured their return trip to Columbus with a 15-7 surge over the final six minutes of regulation, which ultimately turned the slimmest of 47-45 leads into the final 10-point margin of victory.
Burdette — who scored just two points in the opening canto — tallied 11 of her game-high 37 points down the stretch, which also included the first seven points of a pivotal 10-0 run over a three-minute span of the fourth. That charge allowed the Green and Gold to extend its two-point cushion out to 57-45 with under three minutes left, and the Green Wave (25-3) ultimately never recovered.
Eastern (25-1) moves on to Value City Arena for a state semifinal against defending D-4 champion Fort Loramie, which will tip-off at 8 p.m. Thursday night at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of the Ohio State University. The Lady Redskins (26-2) defeated Fayetteville-Perry by a 70-61 count in the Region 16 championship at Tippecanoe High School.
Afterwards, sixth-year EHS coach John Burdette spoke about the feeling of getting back to the Final Four — as well as getting another step closer to the ultimate prize that he and the Lady Eagles are shooting for.
“We still haven’t reached our goal, but we are tickled to make it back to state. It’s awesome,” John Burdette said with a smile. “It’s great for the girls and great for everyone that was here supporting us. We are thrilled to be headed back to Columbus, but we still have some work to do to get where we want to be.”
For all that Jenna Burdette provided in the scoring column, it was actually Eastern’s overall approach that reaped the most benefits over the course of the game. The Lady Eagles paid a special eye to juniors Jill Blacksten and Ashleigh Parkinson on both ends of the floor, hoping to land one or both of the six-footers in foul trouble.
And Parkinson accommodated that plan early on, as the No. 2 scorer for NCHS picked up her second personal at the 3:55 mark of the first — then followed seven seconds later with her third foul, forcing her to the bench over the final 11-plus minutes of the first half.
The Lady Eagles — who never led in the first quarter and trailed 9-8 after eight minutes — went on a 25-18 run during that 11:48 span without Parkinson, giving the guests a 29-23 intermission advantage.
Jenna Burdette scored 17 of Eastern’s first 19 points to start the second period, which helped the guests gradually pull away for the two-possession edge at the break.
There were four ties and 12 lead changes in the opening 16 minutes of play, with the halftime difference being the largest lead for either squad. Newark Catholic held a trio of three-point edges in the opening period of play.
EHS had five turnovers and connected on 12-of-32 shot attempts in the first half, which included a 2-of-12 effort from three-point range. NCHS, conversely, netted 2-of-9 trifectas and 7-of-22 field goal attempts overall while committing 10 miscues before intermission.
Parkinson returned to the lineup at the start of the second half, and Newark Catholic immediately took advantage of her presence — as the junior contributed four points to an 11-4 run that allowed the hosts to secure a 34-33 lead with 3:48 remaining in the third stanza.
Burdette made a personal 4-0 run over the next 1:07, which also included drawing the fourth foul on Parkinson with 2:41 left. Parkinson, however, stayed in the game and capped a 4-0 spurt over the next 31 seconds — giving NCHS the lead back at 38-37.
Jordan Parker reclaimed the lead for EHS with a trifecta at the 2:01 mark, but Kelly Clapper answered 22 seconds later with a three-pointer — allowing the Green Wave to claim what would be their final lead of the night at 41-40 with 1:39 left.
Burdette needed just nine seconds to erase the Lady Eagles’ deficit, as her old-fashioned three-point play ultimately allowed the guests to take a 43-41 edge into the finale.
Blacksten netted two free throws 49 seconds into the fourth, which tied the game at 43-all. Erin Swatzel made a basket for Eastern at the 6:52 for the final lead change of the night, then Burdette tacked on a bucket for a 47-43 edge.
Parkinson countered with 6:01 left in regulation as her final basket of the night trimmed the deficit down to two, but Burdette drew Parkinson’s fifth foul just eight ticks later while converting an old-fashioned three-pointer — giving EHS momentum with a 50-45 lead and 5:53 remaining.
Burdette’s and-one conversion was the start of the 10-0 run that lasted until Laura Pullins made a layup at the 2:53 mark, giving the Lady Eagles their largest lead of the night at 57-45. Newark Catholic was never closer than 59-51 with 51.7 seconds from that point on.
Two of Parkinson’s five fouls came on player-control calls, and that defensive intensity ultimately limited the Green Wave to just 17-of-52 shooting for 33 percent — including a 5-of-20 effort from three-point range. NCHS also missed its first eight shot attempts in the fourth quarter.
“We knew what we had to do coming into the game and the girls listened to what we talked about wanting to do. We wanted to attack their bigs and try to get them in foul trouble,” Coach Burdette said. “We knew they were going to be aggressive going to the hole and that we could pick up some charges, which we did. I’m proud of the defensive effort that the kids gave tonight.”
The loss of one of his best players made things particularly tough on Newark Catholic coach Rob Smith, who is still trying to get the Green and White to their first state tournament since the 1987 campaign. Yet, as hard as the final outcome was to swallow, Smith didn’t hesitate to pay respect to the Lady Eagles.
“Obviously, losing Ashleigh changed everything on our part. We can make all the excuses in the world, but we just didn’t get it done,” Smith said. “That’s a pretty good team on the other side right there and they have what I think, offensively, is the best guard in the state in Jenna Burdette.
“We stayed in it by staying the course and hitting some big shots to make some runs, but Burdette just kept matching everything we did. I don’t think there is another kid in this state that can guard that girl. She just killed us off the dribble tonight.”
Burdette finished the night by making 15 field goals — including one trifecta — and going a perfect 6-of-6 at the free throw line. The University of Dayton signee also collected four rebounds, two steals and a team-best five assists in the triumph.
Eastern connected on 24-of-57 shot attempts for 42 percent, including a 3-of-15 effort from three-point range for 33 percent. The guests committed just eight turnovers and were outrebounded by a 32-29 overall margin, but both squads hauled in 12 offensive caroms.
Jordan Parker and Erin Swatzel contributed 10 points apiece to the winning cause, while Laura Pullins and Katie Keller each added two markers apiece. Swatzel also posted a double-double with a team-high 12 rebounds.
Maddie Rigsby — who took turns guarding both NCHS bigs throughout the evening — rounded out the winning tally with one point. EHS was 11-of-15 at the free throw line for 73 percent.
Blacksten — a two-time D-4 Central District POY selection — led the Green Wave with a double-double effort of 24 points and 17 rebounds, while Parkinson and Jenna Bourne respectively added 11 and six markers.
Kelly Clapper contributed five points and Makenzie Lawrence chipped in four markers, while Ivy Durbin rounded out the scoring with two points. NCHS was 13-of-17 at the charity stripe for 76 percent.
Eastern becomes just the eighth Southeast District school to qualify for a girls state basketball tournament multiple times, and also joins both Logan (1991-92) and Sardinia Eastern Brown (2000-02) as the only programs to make consecutive Final Four appearances from the region.
The Lady Eagles are still the only program from the Southeast District to ever advance to an OHSAA semifinal contest at the D-4 level.
Having been in this situation before, EHS coach John Burdette believes that it should be another couple of business-as-usual days while his troops prepare for Columbus. It will also be the final week of practice for five storied seniors, a quintet that wants to go out on a good note.
With any luck, and a lot of effort, Burdette believes that this group is just as capable of coming home with some hardware as anyone.
That is, as long as they are still willing to work for it.
“We are down to four teams and everybody is going to be good,” Burdette said. “We weren’t nervous last year and I can’t imagine the girls being nervous again this year. We just have to go out and keep doing the little things that make us successful.
“I’ll hate to see this season end either way after this weekend, but we do have one more week. This is what we’ve worked all these months for and now it’s time to finish some business.”
Ohio Valley Publishing sports writer Alex Hawley contributed to this report.