NORWALK, Ohio - After coming close a year ago it was all about getting over the hump for ninth-ranked Central Catholic in last night's Division I girls basketball regional final against 10th-ranked Solon.
It wasn't easy, nor was it secure until the final inbounds pass, but the Fighting Irish got over that hump with a 51-49 victory at Norwalk High School.
In a game that saw 11 lead changes through the first three quarters, the Irish pulled out to an eight-point margin early in the fourth, then held on for dear life down the stretch.
Junior forward Brianna Jones topped the Irish with 12 points and eight rebounds, but it was the contributions off the bench that paved the way to Central's first trip to the state semifinals since 2001 and fourth overall journey to the final four under coach Steve Pfahler.
"When you get to this level both teams just want it so bad," Pfhaler said. "So, you're going to get everybody's best game. They played their hearts out and we were fortunate enough to hold on."
The Irish (23-3) now have the daunting task of facing second-ranked Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (24-2), the two-time defending state champion, in Friday's 8 p.m. semifinal at Value City Arena in Columbus.
The Irish had lost to Findlay on this same court in last year's regional final, but returned their top seven players from that team.
Central fell behind 9-4 early before surging to a 13-13 tie after one quarter. But that surge was costly in the short term because Irish front-court fixtures Jones and Katelyn Nowacki both went to the bench late in the first quarter after picking up their second fouls. Both remained there until the second half.
But senior subs Ashley
Frazier, Valerie Gang filled the post void admirably, keeping Central ahead 28-24 entering halftime.
"Those kids played 10 minutes straight and they played [great]," Pfahler said. "That's what won it for us right there, with Crunch [Brianna Jones] and Nowacki on the bench."
Frazier contributed six points, two rebounds, a blocked shot, and solid defense in the second quarter against the Comets' post standout Erin Wisner, a 6-2 senior who will play in the MAC at Miami.
"I knew I had to come in and step up and I think me and Val helped contribute a lot off the bench," Frazier said. "And our guards really stepped up to make up for the posts being gone."
Gang was also effective on the defensive end, and wing sub Paige Weaver pitched in a 3-pointer and three rebounds during the stretch.
Solon took its last lead of the game at 31-30 on two free throws by Wisner (12 points, seven boards) with 5:39 left in the third quarter. Jones answered with a 10-footer a minute later, and her 10-footer from the lane with 57 seconds left in the third put Central up 40-32.
"It was basically about keeping our composure," Jones said. "We knew we had to play hard, keep up our intensity, play through the fouls and trust each other.
"I wasn't nervous. I knew we were going to pull it out. I believe in my team. We were all on the same page, and we're going to state."
The Comets got within 44-43 on Dana Banda's 3-pointer with 3:57 left in the game, and then within 47-46 on Robin Gilmore's 3-pointer with 1:14 to play.
Weaver hit both ends of a bonus chance at the line with 56 seconds left to make it 49-46 and, after a Banda free throw cut it to two, Central guard Sharise Calhoun turned in the play of the game.
Jones missed the front end of a bonus with 21.4 seconds left and Solon's Kathleen Russell rebounded and dribbled down the left sideline past the time line. Just before Russell appeared ready to make a drive from the left wing, Calhoun (11 points) slipped in behind her for a steal.
That led to Danielle Lewis (nine points) being fouled, and making both free throws for a 51-47 lead.
"She wasn't watching for me so I wanted to hurry up get behind her while I could," Calhoun said. "I knew I had to help my teammates out. We didn't want her to score.
"It was really a team effort. That's what won us this ballgame. Our heart has helped us get through these tough games."
Russell added a bucket with three seconds left, but, after a tenuous inbounds scenario, Lewis finally got the ball in to Weaver at midcourt after a timeout to close out the clock.
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