The West Holmes girls basketball team got its wish -- a date against four-time defending champion Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown.
Ultimately, though, the Knights' state title dream didn't come true.
The Knights trailed throughout Saturday's Div. II state championship game and couldn't knock off the reigning champs, falling 56-44. For the Blazers (23-6), it is their fifth straight crown, which sets a record of consecutive state titles. Hathaway Brown had previously shared the mark with Cincinnati Mt. Notre Dame, which won four straight from 2006-09, and Regina.
The Blazers' four senior starters walked off the floor having never lost a postseason game.
Senior Nia Marshall, who finished with a game-high 17 points and set a Div. II state championship game record with 18 rebounds, said Saturday's title had more meaning than the previous three.
"This was different because this was the last 32 minutes," she said. "It was emotional at the end when we knew we had our fifth one in the bag and this was the last time we'd play together."
With nearly all of the fans inside Value City Arena decked out in red and blue, Saturday's state championship was a neutral site in name only. As a result, Hathaway Brown coach Paul Barlow said one of the most crucial moments was during the opening tip, when the Blazers weathered the Knights' early momentum and staked out a 14-5 lead 6 minutes into the contest. "I knew they had the huge crowd and were going to play with a lot of adrenaline," said Barlow. "We survived the early adrenaline push, showed some leadership on the floor and walked out of there with our fifth straight state title."
After seven straight trips to the Final Four, West Holmes coach Lisa Patterson, whose team closed the year at 28-2, said HB simply has all the intangibles to continually come out on top on the state's biggest stage.
"They know how to win basketball games," she said. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have won five in a row."
While HB led by at least seven for all but one possession in the second and third quarters, the Knights cut the margin to 35-32 after Mallori Vess punctuated an 8-0 run by hitting both free throws with 6:32 left on a one-and-one attempt after grabbing a miss by Marshall and getting fouled. After that point, though, the Blazers went on a 9-0 roll as West Holmes missed its next four field goals and committed two turnovers. HB quickly pushed it back to a three-possession game with a layup and two free throws from Marshall, then pushed its lead to 42-32 with 3 minutes to go when Marshall split a pair at the line and Stephanie Poland converted another layup.
Rachelle Morrison, who had a game-high 13 points for the Knights, then missed a 3-pointer on West Holmes' next possession, while Vanessa Smith answered with two more free throws to give HB its largest lead of the game (44-32) and all but seal the outcome.
What made the Blazers' run even more impressive was the fact that the 6-foot-1 Smith, who has committed to play at Princeton next year and was the Div. II Player of the Year, was on the bench for the early part of the fourth quarter when her team began to make its run. At that point, though, HB locked down on the perimeter to effectively clinch the state title.
"I looked at Nia and said, 'You're going to shut down (Laina) Snyder and I'll work on the guards," said Stephanie Solano, who finished with nine points and is one of six seniors on the roster. "We had to pressure them on defense so they couldn't cut the gap."
After Snyder, a first-team All-Ohioan, put up 26 points and 19 rebounds against Dayton Chaminade-Julienne in Thursday's semifinal, she was limited to eight points and six rebounds on Saturday. Much of that was because she was bottled up by Marshall, who will play at Cornell University next fall, as the 6-footer's strength and positioning created fits for the junior post. Smith and the 6-4 Poland also added to Snyder's troubles.
"Every single time I was anywhere near where I usually am," said Snyder, "there were three people taller and bigger than me."
It also didn't help that Snyder picked up her second foul early in the second frame.
"(Marshall's) one of the strongest players I've played against," said Snyder. "It's hard to keep battling when (you're in foul trouble). After the second you have to be careful. Sometimes you have to back down so you don't get that third foul and they took advantage."
Snyder wasn't the only one who battled foul trouble. Smith, who was the team's leading scorer this season at 16.5 points per game, also picked up her second early in the second quarter and had to come out of the game with the Blazers nursing a double-digit lead. The problem for the Knights was they couldn't take cut into the deficit with Smith on the bench. Marshall picked up the slack with eight points during the frame while West Holmes also had five turnovers.
West Holmes was limited to 38-percent shooting (7-for-19) in the first half. Fittingly, Barlow said defense has been his team's calling card, especially in the last few weeks.
"Yesterday I thought about playing some zone," he said, "but when it comes down to it we said, 'We're going to play half-court man -- come and beat us.' In the tournament again this year defense has set the tone."
While the Knights knocked off HB 49-45 in the team's earlier meeting in December by using its depth to wear them down, Patterson said her team wasn't able to do that Saturday and they were out-executed, as West Holmes was held to a lower field goal percentage than HB (45 percent to 40), as well as committing more turnovers (15-10) and being outrebounded (30-27).
"They don't have a deep bench and we do," said Patterson. "We were able to wear them out but you can't do that in a state championship game where there's 90-second media timeouts. We had to limit our mistakes and take it at them. That was the difference."
After a stellar season by her own club, Patterson could only tip her cap to the team that simply made more plays.
"They have everything that makes them a great ballclub to a higher level than we do," she added. "It's the same makeup -- their athletes are just a little stronger. Today they had the type of game they needed to have."