COLUMBUS - For the first 19 minutes of yesterday's Division III girls state basketball championship game, a battle of unbeatens seemed destined to go right down to the wire.
But, after allowing fourth-ranked Middletown Madison to rally within two points early in the third quarter, top-ranked Liberty-Benton used a dominant 26-6 game-closing surge to take a comfortable 66-44 victory at Value City Arena.
Senior All-Ohio guard Amanda Hyde led the Eagles (27-0) with 23 points and eight rebounds, sophomore guard Caite Craft had 19 points, and senior guard Amber Petersen added 13 to lift their team to its first state championship and unbeaten season.
"We play so well together because we get along so well off the court," Hyde said. "We're all good friends and we have chemistry, and that helps us a ton on the court. I couldn't ask for better teammates"
Madison was paced by sophomore guard Brittany Shields' 13 points. All-Ohioan Ally Malott, the Mohawks' 6-3 junior forward, was held to 10 points, but shared top rebounding honors (nine) with teammate Lindsay Hoskins.
"That's the sign of a good team," Eagles coach Nate Irwin said of Madison's play late in the second quarter and early in the third. "They fought right back. They definitely had the momentum going into the half.
"I told our girls we had to win that first part of the third quarter. That was probably the biggest difference in the game - that four minutes at the beginning of the third quarter."
The Eagles - whose starting five spotted the 27-1 Mohawks' first unit an average of three inches per player - nullified that potential Madison advantage with a combination of speed, spacing, and timely drives to the basket.
It also didn't hurt that L-B netted 24 of its 28 free-throw attempts, including a 16-of-16 effort after halftime and its last 18 in a row overall.
"We had to run the floor and hopefully wear them down and get them playing a little faster than they wanted to play," Irwin said, "and hopefully it would affect their shooting.
"Our defense is pretty good, but [most of it] was just that they were tired from chasing us up and down the floor for most of the game."
The two hot-shooting teams traded offensive blows early on with L-B rallying from a 13-8 deficit midway through the first quarter to a 23-19 edge entering the second.
When Hyde used a crossover drive down the lane for a layup, the Eagles had made 12 of their first 19 shots and taken a 34-24 lead with 4:03 left in the half.
Madison regrouped to close the half with a 10-4 run to get within 38-34 at the break, a surge capped by Malott's hook shot from the lane with 0:44 left.
At that point, L-B was 13-of-25 from the field and the Mohawks 13-of-26.
After Catelen Ramsey opened the third quarter with two free throws to push the Eagles' lead to 40-34, the Mohawks gained some brief momentum when buckets from Malott and sub Rachel Blevins cut L-B's lead to 40-38 with 5:14 left in the period.
That's when the Eagles took control.
Petersen's third 3-pointer of the game upped the Eagles' lead to five points at the 4:57 mark and launched their game-breaking 20-2 run.
"We ran into a buzz saw," Madison coach John Rossi said of L-B's closing surge. "We knew they were pretty good, and they're good for a reason. We cut it to four at halftime and we felt pretty good about it.
"But we had three possessions in a row [in third quarter] where we got absolutely nothing, and you can't do that against good teams. They not only can score, they can score in a hurry. The next thing you know it just kept snowballing."
Hyde's driving layup with five seconds left in the third quarter sent L-B to the fourth on top 53-40 and, after Craft opened the fourth with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws, Hyde capped the decisive surge with two more from the line for a 60-40 lead with 6:37 remaining in the game.
"You don't realize [the height advantage] until you're out there trying to get a shot off," Craft said. "That was difficult. But it wasn't intimidating. You just had to take it to them and play right with them."
Liberty-Benton was 18-of-40 (45 percent) from the field, including 6-of-14 on 3-pointers, and forced 16 Madison turnovers while committing 11. The Mohawks were 17-of-47 (36 percent) from the field overall, and just 4-of-21 (19 percent) after halftime. They hit 7-of-12 from the line, and edged the Eagles 29-27 in rebounding.
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