ATHENS, Ohio — One hoops team had played at the Convo before, while the other was making its inaugural trip to the cavernous mecca of the southeastern Ohio postseason.
It didn’t take long to figure out which one was which Sunday night.
The Eastern girls basketball team shot 49 percent from the field and limited South Gallia to just three second half points during a 66-19 victory in a Division IV Southeast District championship matchup at the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens County.
The top-seeded Lady Eagles (21-4) led wire-to-wire and secured their third consecutive D-4 district title with relative ease, as the hosts hit 13 of their first 16 shot attempts en route to a 31-9 lead just 40 seconds into the second canto.
The third-seeded Lady Rebels (19-6) — playing in just their second-ever district championship game — were never closer the rest of the way, as EHS shot 53 percent in the first half while building a lead as large as 30 points by the intermission.
SGHS — which shot just under 21 percent from the field overall — didn’t fare much better in the second half, as the guests managed only one point in the third period while going 11:49 without a field goal after the break.
Meghan Caldwell’s basket with 4:10 left in regulation proved to be the only second half bucket for the Lady Rebels, allowing the guests to pull to within 61-19. SGHS did not score the rest of the way, and EHS closed the game with a 5-0 spurt to wrap up the 47-point outcome.
Eastern — which will be making its fifth Sweet 16 appearance in program history — will now face Sycamore Mohawk in a D-4 regional semifinal at 6:15 p.m. Thursday night at Pickerington High School North in Fairfield County.
The Lady Eagles — who finished the regular season ranked 10th in the final D-4 Associated Press state poll — forced 17 turnovers in the opening 16 minutes and held South Gallia to just 1-of-18 shooting after halftime, proving that their defensive prowess is clicking at the right time of year.
Afterwards, EHS coach John Burdette spoke about his squad’s stellar performance and how it ultimately led to another regional berth.
“I told them we have to go in there with a mindset because South Gallia has played really well at times,” Burdette said. “All we stressed this week was defense. Just play defense. Don’t be nervous, just worry about us and do the things that we do well.
“I can’t be happier that they held a team to 19 points, and that was just a true effort on our part. It showed they have been working.”
The Lady Rebels’ first trip to the Convo wasn’t as memorable, and SGHS coach Brett Bostic acknowledged that the big stage probably played a part in the early minutes. But then again, so did the Lady Eagles.
“Eastern shot the lights out there early on, and we were really hoping that they wouldn’t shoot the lights out,” Bostic said. “The hype was there with us coming to the Convo for the first time, and we tried to get as much of that nervousness out as we could … but it showed.
“Eastern just has a good ball club, and they also had a lot to do with the outcome.”
EHS went 3-of-4 from the field while jumping out to a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into regulation, but a Lesley Small trifecta at the six-minute mark allowed the Lady Rebels to pull within four. The Lady Eagles retaliated by reeling off 14 straight points for a 21-3 edge at the 2:45 mark, and led by double digits the rest of the way.
Eastern’s biggest lead of the first quarter came with 25 seconds left, as Tori Goble converted a layup for a 29-5 lead. Rachel Johnson answered with a basket with two second remaining, allowing SGHS to pull within 29-7 at the end of eight minutes of play.
The Lady Rebels committed 10 turnovers in the second period and 17 total in the first half, and Eastern turned those miscues into a 17-9 surge — giving the hosts a sizable 46-16 cushion at halftime.
The Lady Eagles had just three turnovers at the break and were 17-of-32 from the field during that span, while the Lady Rebels hit just 6-of-16 floor attempts in the first half.
SGHS went 0-for-10 from the field in the third canto, and its only point of the period came on a free throw from Rachel Johnson with 1:45 remaining. That successful charity toss ended a 10-0 EHS run to make it 56-17, and Tori Goble added a basket just before the buzzer to give the Lady Eagles a commanding 58-17 advantage headed into the finale.
Eastern got a trifecta from Savannah Hawley 16 seconds into the fourth, then neither team scored again until Caldwell’s basket at the 4:10 mark for a 61-19 contest. Goble hit a trifecta at the 3:06 mark and Katie Keller added a basket with 1:44 left in regulation, which concluded the scoring at 66-19.
South Gallia finished the night with 24 turnovers, compared to just 10 by the Lady Eagles. SGHS was 7-of-34 from the floor, including a 2-of-11 effort from three-point range for 18 percent. The guests were also 3-of-8 at the free throw line for 38 percent.
Lesley Small and Sara Bailey each led the Lady Rebels with five points, while Meghan Caldwell and Rachel Johnson respectively added four and three markers. Jasmyne Johnson rounded out the scoring with two points. Mikayla Poling had a team-high four caroms.
Following the game, Bostic was a bit emotional about having to say goodbye to a team that had accomplished so much this winter. But even in his sadness, he still managed a grin in reflecting on what they had accomplished en route to getting to the Convo.
“I am really proud of my kids, especially the seniors, for what they’ve done this year,” Bostic said. “We only lost to three teams, two of which are regional qualifiers, and the other was a two-point loss to a Division II school (Gallia Academy). We hadn’t been out of sectionals for a few years and we managed to pick up a hard-fought win in the district semis against Ironton St. Joe so we could get here.
“We were one of 32 teams left in the state of Ohio in Division IV and we matched the school record for wins in a season. We would have liked to continue our season, but there is absolutely nothing to hang our heads about. It’s something that we will always remember.”
It was the final basketball game for seniors Sara Rustemeyer, Rebecca Rutt, Ellie Bostic, Meghan Caldwell and Jasmyne Johnson in the Red and Gold.
Eastern finished the night 26-of-53 from the field, including a 7-of-14 effort from behind the arc for 50 percent. The hosts claimed a 27-17 rebounding edge and were also 7-of-8 from the charity stripe for 88 percent.
Jordan Parker paced EHS with a game-high 18 points, followed by Jenna Burdette with 14 points and Savannah Hawley with 11 markers. Both Parker and Burdette scored all their points in the first half.
Erin Swatzel chipped in eight points to the winning cause, while Tori Goble and Maddie Rigsby respectively added seven and six markers. Katie Keller rounded out the scoring with two markers and also added a team-high five blocked shots. Both Keller and Swatzel hauled in six rebounds apiece.
Winning a district crown isn’t something new to these Lady Eagles, and Burdette acknowledges that his troops have larger goals in mind. He also notes that it’ll take another solid 32-minute effort to get a little closer to the Lady Eagles’ postseason dream.
“The girls are very excited about this win. A person cannot take districts for granted, but that is not the goal of this group,” Burdette said. “Our goal is to keep going on and try to make it (to state).
“We’ve got a tough team in Sycamore Mohawk coming up Thursday night. Good club. Good shooting team. They like to force the tempo too. Ought to be a pretty exciting game. I just hope we can come out on top of it.”
Eastern won both regular season contests against the Lady Rebels. The Lady Eagles captured a 63-25 home decision on November 29 and also won at SGHS back on January 17 by a 73-44 margin. The Lady Rebels finished third in the TVC Hocking standings with a 12-4 league mark.
Jenna Burdette also became the alltime leading scorer in EHS girls basketball history during the first quarter of Sunday night’s win, eclipsing the previous mark of 1,224 career points held by Jessica Karr.