Central's Lauren Farell, left, and Sharise Calhoun trap Start's Maleeka Kynard last night at the Sullivan Center.
A few weeks ago it had the makings of a first-place showdown heading into the girls City League basketball playoffs.
Last night, however, it boiled down to little more than a battle for who would wear the white [home] uniforms in next Wednesday's semifinals.
That honor went to Central Catholic, which shook off a slow start, gained control midway, and then hung on late for a 48-45 win over the visiting Start Spartans, despite a 21-point, 16-rebound effort from Spartans forward Yolanda Richardson.
"We got out to a big lead and kind of gave it back," Central coach Steve Pfahler said. "But that's to Start's credit. They play extremely hard. It was just about making adjustments and finding a better mental focus."
The Irish (15-3, 10-1) were paced by 11 points apiece from forwards Katelyn Nowacki and Brianna Jones, who also contributed seven and six rebounds, respectively.
Start's Shaleca McCorey, left, and Central Catholic's Danielle Lewis get tangled up in pursuit of the basketball.
Sharise Calhoun added nine points and Danielle Lewis eight for the Irish.
Central - the preseason CL favorite and ranked No. 10 in the Ohio Division I poll - snapped Start's 15-game winning streak, and gained the No. 2 seed for a rematch in Wednesday's
8:30 p.m. semifinal.
Start (16-2, 9-2), as No. 3 seed, will don the road uniforms on its brand new home court, the site of this year's girls playoffs.
"It's going to be tough," Pfahler said of the rematch. "It's a game of emotion and it'll be a matter of who's playing well. They're certainly going to be fired up to play us on their home floor after losing tonight.
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/TO17150419.GIF> VIEW: <a href=" /assets/pdf/TO37850131.PDF" target="_blank "><b>Girls standings, stats</b></a>
"I really don't know what we gained out of this, other than the fact that the kids got a win. We're going to have to be even more prepared next time when we play them. They're a good basketball team."
Three-time defending champion Waite (12-5, 10-1) is the No. 1 seed by virtue of its CL wins over both Central and Start. The Indians play Notre Dame (14-4, 8-3) in Wednesday's 6:30 semifinal.
Start, which also got 15 points from promising freshman guard Maleeka Kynard, took an early 9-2 lead on the first of Kynard's three first-half 3-pointers.
But Central regrouped defensively to ignite a 10-0 run over the next 5:42, pulling out to a 12-9 lead on two Lauren Farell free throws 6:39 before halftime.
The Irish pressured Start's smallish guard corps, forcing 15 of the Spartans 25 total turnovers before the break.
Ahead 23-15 at halftime, Central opened the third quarter on Lewis' 3-pointer 17 seconds in.
Start didn't solve the Irish defense and begin turning the tide until after Calhoun's steal-and-layup put the Irish up 32-21 with 2:40 left in the third.
That's when Richardson took over. The dominant 6-foot-1 lefty, who had 17 points and 11 boards after halftime, got Start within 32-29 on a putback with 40 seconds left in the third period. She opened the fourth with a three-point play for a 32-32 tie.
But Jones answered on a 10-foot jumper 22 seconds later
(6:16 mark), and the Spartans never again pulled even. Nowacki rose to the occasion with six points and four boards in the final 5:07.
"We just felt our defense was getting a little lazy, so we had to pick it up and pick up our intensity and make sure we went after it and give it everything we had," Nowacki said of the stretch run.
"[Richardson] was awesome on the offensive boards. But it all worked out. I'm just happy we won. It was a fun game to play."
Start had one last chance to force overtime after Lewis missed the second half of a double-bonus opportunity at the line with 7.7 seconds left.
But T.T. Arnold (six points) missed the mark on a last-second shot that would have counted for only two points anyway.
"We were down [eight] at the half and we talked about executing," Start coach Bob Brown said. "We had too many turnovers in the first half. We got down 11, but our kids stuck together.
"We said, 'Hey, it's far from over,' and they ended up having a shot to tie it at the buzzer on the road against a pretty good team. I think, if we fix a few things, hopefully we can change the outcome the next time."
Central was 17 of 51 (33 percent) from the field, 13 of 21 from the line and committed 14 turnovers. Start was 18 of 49 (37 percent) from the field, 5 of 10 from the line, and outrebounded the Irish 37-31.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.