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It was a battle of wills to see who could dictate tempo in Thursday night’s Three Rivers Athletic Conference girls basketball matchup between host Whitmer and Central Catholic.
And, in the end — after 16 lead changes and nine ties — Whitmer’s Panthers had a little more will with their deliberate pace and squeaked out a 46-44 victory.
The game was ultimately decided at the foul line, where Whitmer (4-2, 2-1 TRAC) made 11 more free throws (19 for 26) than the Irish (7 for 8) even attempted.
More specifically, it was decided at the line by the Panthers’ 6-foot junior guard Samantha Meinen, who celebrated her 17th birthday with a game-high 16 points.
“I couldn’t ask for a better present for my team,” Meinen said of her birthday victory. “It all came down to how well we were going to execute what coach said.
“The whole game he was really stressing to us to get the ball inside, because Central’s a lot faster than us.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to see more photos from the game
Meinen was eight for 12 at the stripe, all in the fourth quarter, including three of four in the final 12.7 seconds to clinch the win.
“It’s really a mental thing,” Meinen said of surviving Central’s tight defense. “It came down to us keeping our heads, and the coaches calling timeouts to make sure we stayed settled down, because Central did a great job of pressuring us on defense.”
Late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, the momentum of the game swung away from up-tempo Central (2-2, 1-2), which had led 28-23 after sophomore guard Byrdy Galernik scored on a runner in the lane, then converted a steal-and-layup into a three-point play with 1:07 left in the third.
That momentum swing came courtesy of the two freshmen on the Whitmer roster — 5-7 guard Sara Semler and 6-1 center Bryce Blood.
“Their minutes continue to grow every game,” Whitmer coach Sean Flemmings said of the freshmen, “and they’re not really afraid, which is a big thing for freshmen. They’re ready to catch and shoot.”
Semler hit a 3-pointer from the left corner with 39 seconds left in the third, Blood (seven points, nine rebounds) converted two buckets from the lane, and Semler (11 points) added a 3-pointer from the right corner during a pivotal 16-5 Panther run. That surge was capped by Meinen, who rebounded her own miss and scored to give Whitmer a 39-33 lead with 3:45 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Central was not finished, however, answering with its own 7-0 run to take a 40-39 edge on Mikayla Smith’s two free throws with 2:06 to go.
But Meinen’s two free throws gave Whitmer the lead back 20 seconds later, and the Panthers held on down the stretch.
“They do a great job defending the wings because they’re so athletic,” Flemmings said of Central’s defense. “They get into the passing lanes, which makes it difficult to run your offense.
“Sam Meinen did a good job of attacking [late in the game]. They left the driving lanes open, and we were able to exploit that, especially in transition situations.”
Whitmer also got nine points and eight rebounds from last season’s Division I first-team All-Ohioan, Keshyra McCarver.
Central’s team leader, 5-9 senior guard Michelle Murnen, had an off night shooting, hitting just two of 13 from the field. Murnen led the Irish in rebounding with seven boards.
Galernik topped Central with 11 points, and Maggie Buchele added nine. The Irish were 17 for 46 (37 percent) from the field, and edged Whitmer 33-32 in rebounding.
“We put them at the foul line, but the thing that killed us is that they had eight offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter and we had [seven] turnovers," Central coach Marty McGurk said.
“We would force a shot that we wanted them to shoot, and then we wouldn’t rebound the ball. They forced us to play at their pace, walking the ball up the floor.”
The Panthers won despite hitting just 12 of their 41 field-goal attempts (29 percent). Whitmer forced 20 Irish turnovers and committed 19.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461, or on Twitter@JungaBlade.