Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by Ryan Kaczmarski
With one regular season game remaining, the Westlake girls basketball team was on a mission.
And they weren't in a sharing kind of mood, either.
The Demons, with a share of the Southwestern Conference already in their possession, had one more hurdle to overcome if they wanted the outright championship. And from the opening tip, they knew the Brecksville Bees would give them all they could handle.
But as the final buzzer sounded, Westlake had the SWC championship all to itself after a hard-fought 49-38 win over the Bees Saturday afternoon at the Westlake Athletic Center.
With the win, the Demons finished at 11-1 in the conference. They had captured a share of the title earlier in the week with a 59-25 win over North Olmsted, but weren't willing to settle for that, according to senior captain Allison Collins.
"It feels so good to get this done," said Collins, who had the task of defending Brecksville's leading scorer, senior forward Mary Schentur, most of the game.
"This was championship week. We knew after we beat Berea-Midpark that it still wasn't over, that we still had two more games to win," Collins said. "I think that's what really gave us the edge. A lot of teams would have been satisfied beating the team that was on top, but we didn't want to share this.
"We wanted to come out and win this outright, and it feels so good," she said.
With a raucous student section cheering them on, the Demons jumped out to a 6-0 lead on a Monica Fury jumper, Rebecca Essig's coast-to-coast layup and a drive down the lane from Collins. But it soon became evident that the Bees had come to play.
In fact, the visitors led twice in the first half. A Schentur 3-pointer had Brecksville up 7-6 in the first quarter, and a Kelsey Roman banker off the glass put the Bees up 15-14 midway through the second. But both times, Westlake had an answer as the home team scratched its way to a 21-17 halftime advantage.
"Brecksville has a really good team, so we really had to focus the entire game," Collins said.
"We had to make sure our defense was really good today because they're a strong offensive team. We tried to hold them to single digits each quarter. We didn't do that, but in the end our defense was able to get it done," she said.
Westlake got a quick jump start to the second half when senior Paige Rimko knocked down back-to-back shots to open the third quarter. Fury hit three straight buckets for the Demons, then junior guard Michelle Appel drained a 3-pointer to give the home team its first double digit lead, 34-24, with 2:12 left in the quarrier.
"Westlake played very well. We had a hard time stopping Fury, and we really had to adjust to that," said Brecksville head coach Dom Daltorio. "And you know what, they had a couple people hit some shots we weren't expecting to.
"We had some girls hit some big shots too, and that's how we've been. It looks like we're down, but we're there. We've got kids who can shoot, kids who can drive and people who can take the ball and handle it inside.
"They don't get rattled when they're down, so we know we're in the game until the end," he added.
That they were. The Bees came right back and pulled to within six, 36-30, to close out the quarter as junior Erin Livingston drained a 3-pointer from the left corner. Roman hit a driving jumper to start the fourth quarter, and just like that Westlake's lead was down to four.
But then came a Demon run that all but sealed their first SWC title since 2009.
Junior guard Taylor Hood pulled up and hit nothing but net on a 3-pointer from the right wing. Fury scored on an offensive rebound, then Hood tickled the twine again from long distance, this time from the left side. That pushed the Westlake lead out to 12, 44-32, with just under four minutes left in the game.
"Taylor stepped up and hit some big shots, and Becca and Michelle hit some shots too," said Westlake head coach Chip Weiss.
"Paige, I thought, did a great job for us. She hit those two shots right away in the second half, and that's what we needed. We ran some plays for her, and she hit those shots and got us going.
"But that's what we do. We feed off each other, and we all get along. We enjoy each other, and it's a lot of fun," he added.
Brecksville kept working, but could get no closer than 44-37 on sophomore Natalie Lesesky's 3-pointer.
"It was a great environment out here today," said Daltorio, whose team closed out its regular season at 10-11 overall and 5-7 in the SWC. "I think both teams will have a nice little memory of today, and that's what it's all about."
Schentur led the Bees with 16 hard-fought points and seven rebounds with Collins hounding her throughout most of the game. Roman finished with nine points, while Livingston added five.
"We've absolutely had kids step up for us," Daltorio said. "We got that today, and it's been like that lately.
"We need everyone to continue to play that way going into the tournament. We've got to stick together as a team and enjoy ourselves. We've got to continue to play for each other as we move on.
"We've got to keep that mentality. We have to," he added.
Fury led all scorers with 19 points, and she was a force under the boards as well with 14 rebounds. Hood finished with eight points, while Appel and Essig chipped in for seven and six points, respectively.
"Today really sums up our season," Weiss said. "We just find a way to get it done.
"Somehow, some way we get a stop here or there, we put in a big basket when we need it. We just find a way to win.
"It was a great team effort. They all won it for us today. Everybody chipped in, did their job, did their role. That's what's so great about this team."
Both Collins and Weiss talked about what made this team one of championship caliber.
"We all worked together, and as you can see from the scoring everyone contributed," Collins said.
"This has been so much fun. I couldn't have asked for a better senior season," Collins continued. "We're all so close. We're all juniors and seniors, and we've been together for three years.
"We've come to like and respect each other so much that it makes playing with each other that much better," she added.
"It's the way this team works together," Weiss said, without hesitation.
"This team is just so much fun to watch when we do things right. The way we pass, the way we pressure people, the way we practice and play every day. And we get along so well, from the coaches on down to the players. We all encourage one another.
"It's been a great team. I can't sum it up any other way than that," he concluded.
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