JACKSON, Ohio — Fortunately, kitchen sinks are not permitted anywhere near the inside of a gymnasium.
If they were, however, Waterford coach Jerry Close may have tried throwing a few at the Eastern girls basketball team too.
Close and his Lady Wildcats broke out every trick in the book, but not even creativity was enough to prevent the Lady Eagles from moving on to the program’s third-ever Elite 8 appearance Thursday night following a 47-30 victory in a Division IV regional semifinal matchup at Jackson High School.
After dropping a pair of decisions to EHS in the regular season by an average of 30 points, the fourth-seeded Lady Wildcats (18-8) managed to keep things interesting for three-plus quarters of play with an entirely different approach.
WHS did away with its traditional full-court pressure and up-tempo style in favor of a slow-down, ball-controlled attack on both ends of the floor. The change in tactics gave Eastern fits throughout the course of the game, and it also allowed the hosts a fighting chance headed into the finale.
The top-seeded Lady Eagles, however, rose to the occasion when it was most needed down the stretch, as the guests closed the final 6:31 of regulation with a 14-3 surge — turning a tightly-contested 33-27 battle into the final 17-point margin of victory.
The win allowed Eastern (24-1) to advance to its third regional final in four years and also sets up a rematch of last year’s regional championship game with Newark Catholic, which the Lady Eagles won by a slim 57-56 margin.
The Green Wave (25-2) advanced to the Elite 8 round Thursday night with a 61-35 triumph over Milford Center Fairbanks in the other D-4 semifinal at Pickerington High School North.
Eastern led all but 4:35 of the opening quarter and held a two-possession advantage over the final 18:40 of regulation, but the cushion never felt as comfortable as the previous three tournament wins — which came by an average of 50 points.
It was also the first time that the Lady Eagles failed to reach at least 50 points in a contest since an 81-48 loss to Orrville at the Berlin Hiland Classic in the Country on Jan. 19, 2012 — ending a streak of 37 consecutive outings.
Yet, for all the ‘problems’ that popped up throughout the course of 32 minutes, sixth-year EHS coach John Burdette couldn’t help but smile when remembering the most important fact of the night — that his Lady Eagles have at least one more game to play.
“We had a feeling that Waterford would try to slow us down. We told the girls that it wasn’t going to be a real high-scoring game, so we needed to keep our composure and stay ahead — and that’s what we did,” Burdette said. “Most people come watch our team and think it’s going to be a real high-scoring fiasco all the time. This was a good game for us because this is what we need to do when things aren’t always going so well.
“It’s a 17-point regional win over our league rival, who we always seem to play each year in the tournament. We’ll take it and be happy.”
Actually, there were several reasons for celebration afterwards.
The outcome allowed the Lady Eagles to set a school record for wins in a season, eclipsing last year’s mark of 23-5. The EHS seniors also improved their record to 8-0 alltime at Jackson High School and finish their careers with a 7-4 mark against the Lady Cats — including a perfect 3-0 in postseason matchups.
Jenna Burdette became the first EHS player to reach 1,700 points for a career with a basket at the 2:28 mark of the third quarter, while Jordan Parker surpassed Jessica Karr (1,224) for second on the alltime girls scoring list with a trifecta just under three minutes after halftime.
Waterford stormed out to early leads of 2-0 and 6-2, but the Lady Eagles countered with 9-0 run over the final 4:18 to secure an 11-6 edge after eight minutes of play. Erin Swatzel hit a basket at the 3:25 mark, giving EHS what would prove to be a permanent lead at 7-6.
The Lady Cats went scoreless and committed six turnovers over a 6:03 stretch of the opening stanzas, which ultimately ended at the 6:29 mark of the second period after Taylor Hilverding netted two free throws for an 11-8 deficit.
Hilverding nailed another pair of free throws with 2:40 left to again get WHS to within a possession at 15-12, but Eastern countered with a 4-0 spurt over the final 2:26 of the half — giving the Green and Gold a 19-12 cushion at the break.
Eastern was 8-of-22 from the field and owned a 13-10 edge on the glass in the first half, while the hosts made a mere 4-of-21 shot attempts by intermission. EHS committed 11 turnovers — nine in the second quarter — while Waterford had nine giveaways at the half.
Parker’s record came at the 5:04 mark of the third, as her three-pointer capped a 6-2 spurt that gave the Lady Eagles their largest lead through three quarters at 25-14. The Lady Cats, however, hit four of their first five shots and went on an 11-4 charge — allowing the hosts to close to within 29-25 with 2:38 remaining.
Waterford was never closer the rest of the way, as the Lady Eagles made a 4-0 run over the final 2:28 of the third — giving EHS a 33-25 lead headed into the finale.
Regan Porter hit the opening basket of the fourth, allowing Waterford to close to within two possessions one last time at 33-27 with 6:44 left in the regulation. The only other points scored by WHS came from Randee Seevers on a trifecta at the 3:56, making it a 38-30 contest.
Jordan Parker nailed consecutive trifectas to spark a 9-0 run that closed the game, allowing Eastern — the D-4 AP poll champion — to move on to the regional final.
Waterford committed 55 turnovers in the two regular seasons contests, yet had only 14 in this meeting. EHS, conversely, committed 18 turnovers Thursday night after making only 22 miscues in the two league matchups.
The difference, however, came from the field — where the Lady Cats were just 10-of-44 overall for 23 percent, including a 2-of-15 effort from three-point range. Eastern netted 17-of-46 shot attempts for 37 percent, which included a 6-of-16 effort from behind the arc.
The Lady Eagles — who are now 4-5 alltime in regional contests — also outrebounded WHS by a 29-20 overall margin, including a slim 8-7 edge on the offensive glass.
“I don’t think that there were a lot of people who expected this game to be close. The kids did all that they could do, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the hole,” WHS coach Jerry Close said afterwards. “I couldn’t ask my kids to play any harder than they did tonight, and they believed in what we were trying to do. I’m just proud of the kids’ effort tonight and the focus that they showed over the last four weeks in getting us to this point.”
Close — who has led WHS to eight regional appearances in nine years at the helm — also took a moment immediately after the game to talk with the Eastern seniors, whom he will never have to face again on the hardwood. And truth be told, he’s hoping they have a few more games left in them.
“That’s a great group of kids there at Eastern. It’s been very competitive with them for four years and they finally got the upper hand on us this year,” Close said. “They are the number one team in the state for a reason and I really hope they win it all. That’s what I told the seniors there after the game.”
Jenna Burdette led the Lady Eagles with a game-high 20 points, followed by Jordan Parker with 18 points and Erin Swatzel with six markers. Maddie Rigsby and Katie Keller rounded out the EHS scoring with two points and one point, respectively.
Keller and Swatzel each hauled in a team-best eight caroms, while Burdette dished out a team-high four assists. Eastern was 7-of-9 at the free throw line for 78 percent.
Randee Seevers paced Waterford with nine points, followed by Taylor Hilverding and Regan Porter with six markers apiece. Dani Drayer added five points, while Hannah Dailey and Mariah Starkey rounded out the tally with two markers each.
Porter hauled in team-high eight rebounds, while handed out two assists. The Lady Cats were 8-of-14 at the charity stripe for 57 percent.
In talking with his troops afterwards, Burdette noted that another ‘off night’ could result in a very disastrous outcome. Then again, he also knows that his kids are one game away from a major goal at the beginning of the year. With that, he’s pretty sure that his senior-laden squad will be ready for one more dog fight.
“I told the girls after the game, ‘If you think Waterford came out and played you hard, you wait until Saturday,’” Burdette said. “I know Newark Catholic is going to be ready for us and I know that this rematch is what they have been playing for all year. That’s good, because that is the way you better think going into a game — that’s what you are supposed to be doing.
“If we come out and match their intensity and play ball, we’ll see who goes on to Columbus.”
Tip-off of the D-4 regional championship game between Eastern and Newark Catholic will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night at Pickerington High School North in Fairfield County.