Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — It’s hard to tell just what caused Wheelersburg assistant coach Tom Kaskey to have a hunch on Wednesday. But whatever it was, Kaskey nailed an in-game decision.
The hunch centered around Pirates guard Madison Whittaker, who had started the game on the bench. Once Kaskey suggested Whittaker be entered into the game, the sophomore caught lightning in a bottle late — making Kaskey look like the basketball genius that he is.
Whittaker nailed four 3’s at just the right times, sending her teammates into more of a frenzy with each and helping the Pirates take down Eastern Brown by a 56-41 final in a Division III regional semifinal at Southeastern High School.
The victory clinches the Pirates’ second Elite 8 appearance in the past three seasons.
“I think part of it is that I wanted to do it for my team and I wanted to win,” Whittaker said. “I’m motivated for that. And I’m known as a shooter, so that gives me motivation to just get out there and try my hardest. I just want to do whatever I can to provide for my team.”
“Madison is a kid that can really get going,” Spradlin said. “She came in and hit one, and then it’s one of those things where once you get the first one, you never know. So we kept trying to throw her in there. Just really happy for her that she was able to come in at such a big moment. Alaina [Keeney] and Ellie [Kallner] were both in foul trouble. That says a lot about these other kids that handled the ball for us a lot. They played their role and did what they needed to do.”
While Wheelersburg’s bench provided a spark at the most imperative times, senior guard Kaylee Darnell was as advertised. The University of Rio Grande commit totaled 25 points, eight rebounds and two assists — or what she calls a regular night.
“I thought, honestly, everybody that stepped in played as hard as they could play. I knew our kids would come in and give a good effort,” Spradlin said. “Everybody knows how talented [Eastern] is and [Rylee] Leonard is really special. [Eastern coach Kevin Pickerill] and I have coached against each other for quite awhile. So we’re very familiar with each other. At this level, it just comes down to making shots. We had great energy early. It was a battle but everybody that played for us was just phenomenal.”
Darnell gave Wheelersburg a 2-0 lead off the rip before Leonard countered with a 3 to give the Warriors (24-3) their first lead. But Kallner scored with 4:26 left in the first quarter to put Wheelersburg ahead 4-3 and the Pirates never looked back.
Darnell dialed long distance at the 2:27 mark before Leonard answered with 2:14 to go. That’s when Whittaker nailed her first trey, coming with 2:04 left, making it a 10-6 tally after one.
Wheelersburg’s Makenna Walker and Lauren Jolly scored back-to-back buckets to begin the second before Darnell hit another 3, pushing the lead to 17-8. Leonard cut the deficit to 19-12 with a 3 at the 2:13 mark but Macee Eaton and Darnell each added a score for a 24-12 count at halftime.
“[Eastern] has shooters that can scare you to death. We hung onto those shooters a little too tight at times, allowing Rylee to have a big lane to drive through,” Spradlin said. “It’s a cat and mouse thing. But our kids bought into the game plan. They were really focused on their assignments.”
Darnell and Leonard traded buckets to begin the third before Kallner and Walker made it a 33-16 lead with four minutes to go. After Walker scored to make it a 19-point lead, Leonard, Mackenzie Gloff, Emma Brown and Mary Litzinger went on an 8-0 run, cutting the lead to 35-24.
Gloff then scored with 45.2 seconds left, pushing the run to 12-0 and trimming the lead to seven at 35-28. But when Darnell scored with 30.7 seconds left, that ended the Warriors’ run and helped the Pirates regain momentum.
After taking a 37-28 lead into the final eight minutes, Whittaker hit three 3’s within a three-minute period. Those splashes came at the 6:26, 5:56 and 3:33 marks and when she was done with her deep ball barrage, Wheelersburg owned a commanding 51-36 advantage.
From there, Darnell put the win on ice with a bucket at the 2:48 mark and two free throws with 2:35 left, pushing the edge to 55-36 before substitutions were entered.
“We had a good game plan and we knew they were a really good team,” Darnell said. “Starting at the beginning of the year, we felt like we were the underdog. Then hearing some people say that Eastern Brown or North Adams should’ve been the one seed [instead of Wheelersburg], we used that as motivation and have been playing with a chip on our shoulder. We wanted to come out and prove that we should’ve been the one seed.”
Leonard led Eastern with a game-high 26 points while Mackenzie Gloff added five points and eight rebounds.
Following Darnell’s totals, Whittaker led the way with 12 points while Kallner had six points and four assists. Walker also had six points alongside four rebounds while Eaton and Rucker each grabbed five boards.
Wheelersburg now turns its attention towards Berlin Hiland, a 46-39 winner over Beverly Fort Frye, this coming Saturday in a Division III regional final. That game is scheduled for 1 p.m., Saturday at Southeastern.
The Hawks are who the Pirates matched up with in a regional final two seasons ago. That night, Hiland took home a 61-23 win and captured a trip to the state semifinal. Last winter, Hiland reached a second straight state semifinal before the season was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Needless to say, Wheelersburg will be an underdog. But that also means the Pirates have nothing to lose — which is when a team can be the most dangerous.
“We know the storied program that Hiland has,” Spradlin said. “All of their seniors were sophomores when we played them two years ago. I think we went in riding the high off the emotion that we captured with [Lani Irwin’s buzzer beater] to get to the regional final. So hopefully our kids are a little more comfortable being in this spot. But obviously, we have a very, very tall task ahead of us. But it’s a game. Anything can happen. We’ll give it our best shot.”
Eastern Brown: 7-17-7-16 — 41
Wheelersburg: 6-9-7-12 — 56
Eastern Brown: 14-42 FG, 8-13 FT, 5-14 3pt., 21 rebounds (Gloff 8), 13 turnovers, 2 assists (Dotson 1, Wills 1). Scoring: Leonard 26, Gloff 5, Litzinger 4, Brown 4, Wills 2.
Wheelersburg: 22-45 FG, 3-9 FT, 9-20 3pt., 29 rebounds (Darnell 8), 10 turnovers, 11 assists (Kallner 4). Scoring: Darnell 25, Whittaker 12, Walker 6, Kallner 6, Eaton 2, Rucker 2, Jolly 2, Keeney 1.