COLUMBUS, Ohio — The prize is within reach. All that remains is to take it.
The Eastern girls basketball team is headed to the school’s first-ever state championship game following a hard-fought 68-59 victory over Fort Loramie in an OHSAA Division IV semifinal Thursday night at Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of the Ohio State University in Franklin County.
The AP poll champion Lady Eagles (26-1) battled through seven ties and 10 lead changes in the first half en route to a slim 32-30 intermission advantage, but they never trailed after the break — as the hosts used an 11-5 third quarter run to ultimately claim control of the game.
EHS led by as many 11 points with 6:40 left in regulation, but then foul trouble reared its ugly head down the stretch — as starters Katie Keller and Erin Swatzel both fouled out with more than two minutes left in the contest.
Eastern’s limited bench, however, stepped up and made some key contributions over the final four minutes of the game, and the lead never dipped below five points — allowing Eastern to claim its first-ever state semifinal triumph with the three-possession outcome.
Afterward sixth-year EHS coach John Burdette spoke about the toughness that the defending D-4 champions showed throughout 32 minutes, but also noted the resolve of his own troops in this fiercest of battles.
“As far as this game goes, it went the way I wanted to see it go. Fort Loramie is a good club and we tried to do everything that we could to prepare for them, including some new things at practice this week,” John Burdette said. “(Coach) Carla (Siegel) changed up Fort Loramie’s game there a little bit, and our foul trouble gave us a little bit of a scare, but I am very proud of the way our girls came in and played.”
Eastern had previously been to the state Final Four in five major team sports, all of which ended with an early-round exit. The 1985 and 2001 softball teams made it to the state semis, as did the 2001 boys basketball program and the 2011 volleyball squad.
But in their repeat trip to the Schottenstein Center, the Lady Eagles seemed more poised than last year’s squad — which dropped a 54-51 decision to eventual runner-up Berlin Hiland. FLHS bested Hiland in the D-4 championship game last winter by a 57-42 count for the program’s only state crown in eight trips to the Final Four.
Eastern senior Jenna Burdette poured in a career-high 38 points — including 18 points in the pivotal fourth period — which ultimately sparked the Green and Gold on to their first-ever D-4 final.
The University of Dayton signee — who had 20 points and 11 rebounds in last year’s D-4 semifinal loss to HHS — spoke about how much better off the Lady Eagles were this time around after having been on the grandest of stages last winter.
“It helped a ton. We were way more focused this year than we were last year,” Jenna Burdette said. “The five seniors knew that this was our last shot and the underclassmen understood that too. I think we all played really hard tonight, and I’m sure we will Saturday also.”
The senior guard scored at least five points in each quarter and finished the night 12-of-19 from the field and 13-of-15 at the free throw line. Burdette also hauled in six rebounds, had five steals and dished out three assists in all 32 minutes of action.
Yet, for all of those gaudy individual numbers, that in itself wasn’t enough to carry Eastern to its final destination. The Lady Eagles had seven different players see at least four minutes of action, and each contributed at least one point to the final tally.
“Every coach would like to have a point guard like Jenna, I’m sure,” John Burdette said. “Everybody has a job on this team and that’s her job. She did her job well tonight, as did everybody else, and that’s why we finally get to move on and go for a state championship.”
There were four ties and seven lead changes in the opening period and neither team led by more than possession, as Fort Loramie (26-3) claimed a small 15-14 edge after eight minutes of play.
Senior Darian Rose — who shared D-4 Ohio AP player of the year honors with Burdette — capped a 10-5 run to start the second quarter with a basket at the 5:39 mark, giving the Lady Redskins their largest lead of the night at 25-19.
Eastern countered with a 9-3 spurt over the next 4:37 to knot things up at 28-all, but Kelly Turner answered with two free throws with 45.5 seconds left in the half — giving Fort Loramie its final lead of the game at 30-28.
Katie Keller responded with a basket 13 seconds later to tie things up, then Burdette made a bucket with 13.3 ticks remaining in the half — which eventually provided the hosts a permanent lead headed into halftime.
The Lady Eagles committed nine turnovers and connected on 13-of-27 shot attempts in the opening 16 minutes of play, while the guests gave the ball away 10 times and netted just 9-of-28 field goal tries. FLHS outrebounded Eastern by a 22-16 overall margin in the first half, including a 12-7 edge on the offensive glass.
Both teams hit an offensive lull in the third canto, as each squad started the quarter by missing its first four shot attempts while going scoreless over the first two-and-a-half minutes of play. Rose nailed 1-of-2 free throws at the 5:12 mark to end the scoreless drought while pulling the Lady Redskins to within a point at 32-31.
Both teams traded baskets over the next 1:25 for a 34-33 EHS lead, but the hosts countered with a 9-2 charge over the final three minutes to secure a somewhat comfortable 43-35 cushion headed into the finale.
Jordan Parker and Erin Swatzel each picked up their fourth foul late in the third quarter, and Katie Keller joined the mix with her fourth personal a minute into the fourth — forcing Eastern to get a little creative down the stretch.
Yet, for their troubles, the Lady Eagles continued to extend the advantage, as Parker converted an old-fashioned three-pointer at the 6:40 mark to give the hosts their largest lead of the contest at 48-37.
FLHS, however, countered with an 8-2 run over the next two minutes — as Keller’s fifth foul allowed Jessica Boerger to nail two free throws to close to within 50-45 with 4:41 left in regulation.
Burdette and Laura Pullins helped EHS extend its lead back out to 56-47 with a 6-2 run over the next two minutes, but Swatzel picked up her fifth foul with 2:30 remaining in the fourth. Rose sank both of the ensuing free throws, which started an 8-4 run for a 60-55 deficit with 1:11 left.
The game-changing play of the night involved seldom-used Hannah Barringer, who was simply filling in after Swatzel and Keller had fouled out of the contest. As Eastern had possession, the ball was knocked away from Burdette and into open space.
Burdette eventually beat two FLHS defenders to the loose ball and tapped it to Barringer on the other side of the basket, and the freshman converted the wide open layup for a 62-55 edge with 59 seconds remaining. That basket ultimately sparked a 7-4 run over the final minute of play and allowed Eastern to wrap up its first non-double-digit triumph of the 2014 campaign.
The Lady Eagles connected on 24-of-55 field goal attempts for 44 percent, which included a 1-of-14 effort from three-point range for just seven percent. The hosts committed 14 turnovers in the victory, three fewer than Fort Loramie’s tally of 17 miscues.
Jordan Parker followed Burdette’s game-high 38 points with 12 markers, while Pullins was next with seven points. Parker also had five rebounds and three assists in the win.
Keller chipped in a monster effort of six points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots to the winning cause, while Barringer and Swatzel each contributed two points. Maddie Rigsby rounded out Eastern’s tally with one marker.
Swatzel also had six caroms for the Lady Eagles, who went 19-of-26 at the free throw line for 73 percent.
Fort Loramie made 18-of-54 shot attempts for 33 percent, which included a 4-of-15 effort from behind the arc for 27 percent. The guests outrebounded EHS by a 41-37 overall margin, including a 20-15 edge on the offensive glass.
Rose — the program’s all-time leading scorer — paced FLHS with 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, followed by Jessica Boerger with 13 points. Renae Meyer and Hallie Benanzer also contributed six markers apiece in the setback.
Kelly Turner and Janell Hoying rounded out the scoring with five and three points, respectively, for the guests, who went 19-of-28 at the charity stripe for 68 percent.
The Lady Eagles now turn their attention to Zanesville Bishop Rosecrans in the D-4 final at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Lady Bishops (27-1) defeated Holgate by a 55-40 margin in the first semifinal Thursday night, earning the program’s first state championship appearance since 1996 and seventh overall.
Rosecrans — which won state titles in 1982, 1983 and 1992 — finished the regular season ranked third in the final AP poll and suffered its only loss at Eastern by a 70-53 count back on Dec. 28. The first meeting was the ninth game of the year for the Lady Bishops and the eighth contest for EHS.
“We played them very early, so I’m not really sure what we should expect. I’m sure that they are going to come at us as hard as they can,” John Burdette said. “I told the girls in the locker room before coming here that Rosecrans has lost to either the state champion or someone that’s been in the Final Four for the last three years by a combined total of 10 points or less.
“It’s not like it’s a surprise or that nobody expected them to be here. Rosecrans has a good ball club and they are playing really hard and they are full of seniors.”
The Lady Eagles became the 10th school from the Southeast District to win a state semifinal contest in girls basketball in any division. EHS is still the only southeastern Ohio program to qualify for state in Division IV.
When asked if there was anything that his troops needed to tighten up before Saturday’s championship tilt, John Burdette noted the absolute basics of the game.
“I still think we can improve on our rebounding. There were several times tonight that we were going after the basketball instead of just getting a body on someone. That and turnovers,” Burdette said. “If we control the boards and win the turnover battle, that’s the team that usually wins.”
NOTES: Jenna Burdette’s 38-point effort tied her with Kelly Downs of Ross Southeastern (1986) for third place on the all-time scoring list for points in an OHSAA Final Four contest. Lynn Bihn of Fort Recovery (1991) owns the all-time and D-4 record with 43 points, while Jane Phend of Chargin Falls (1983) sits second overall with 39 markers. Burdette also set a new D-4 record with her 13 made free throws, breaking the previous mark of 12 set by Kara Walton of Worthington Christian in 2001.