SPARTA — The North Union Wildcats, undefeated in conference play, rolled into Sparta on Saturday afternoon, ready to show the Highland Scots that they were the best girls basketball team in the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference.
The host Scots (9-4, 4-4 MOAC) had other ideas.
Kristen Anderson scored 20 points, while she and her teammates played tough defense and were 14-of-17 from the foul line to lead Highland to a 66-64 victory over the Wildcats.
“We’ve been talking about this all week,” said Anderson. “Obviously we couldn’t overlook Mount Gilead, which was our last game. Basically, we have been looking forward to paying (North Union) back for when they beat us the first time. We’ve been excited about it and this win was just a topper.”
Not only do the Wildcats (10-3, 7-1 MOAC) have the best offense in the MOAC, but they are also the toughest defense to score against.
“We had been starting off a little slow and (North Union) got us the first time, so we have been trying to redeem some loses and this was another one on the list,” said Highland coach Galen Chapman. “It was just the effort by our team, coming together, playing defense and wanting to finish. We had a couple of games where we started off kind of hot and then we might go sluggish. Tonight, we put four quarters together, I thought, a little better.”
It looked like the Wildcats were going to get the best of this slugfest. After being tied at 26 at the half, the Wildcats broke out on top 36-32 in the third quarter.
“(North Union) can handle the ball well and they’ve got good guards,” said Chapman. “Our girls stepped up, played defense and guarded the shooter. They did everything that we asked tonight.”
The Scots were playing it fast and loose on the offensive side and showed that they were not intimidated one bit by the MOAC’s No. 1 scoring machine. Late in the third quarter, Tarren Thacker (12 points, four rebounds) missed the back half of a pair of free throws, but Anderson grabbed the rebound and hit the putback. On the Scots’ next possession, Anderson dished it to Kelsey Burt (14 points), who hit a bucket to put the Scots in the lead, 37-36, with 1:50 left in the third quarter.
Payton Denman (three assists, two points, three rebounds) fed it in to Tarren Thacker, who hit a shot. Anderson’s bucket on the Scots’ next possession, made it a 41-38 Scots’ lead with under a minute to go in the third.
“Tarren makes a few fouls but she plays hard,” said Chapman. “I may be a little lenient on the fouling, but I like the aggressive play. I’ll take that. She kept her head, finished the game and didn’t foul out.”
That’s when North Union’s Sydney Parrot (19 points, six rebounds) caught fire like she had in the first half, hitting a couple of quick shots and giving the Wildcats a 44-43 advantage, going into the final quarter.
She connected again at the start of the fourth to grow the Wildcats’ lead to three points, 46-43. The Scots, however, were not going to give up. Anderson and Burt connected and then, Laura Neff (three assists) fed Tarren Thacker, whose basket made it a 50-48 game with 5:30 to go. In the meantime, the Scots’ play under the boards was keeping a lid on the Wildcats’ quick-striking offense.
“We really had to tighten up on defense,” said Burt, one Chapman’s floor leaders. “I can count on my girls to come through for me. They really know when to come through. I love them. I’ve grown up with them. You can see the chemistry out there.”
It was Burt (four rebounds) as well as Neff and Anderson (five rebounds each) getting the ball back on the other end of the floor that kept giving the Scots scoring opportunities.
“Laura Neff played defense — she’s a senior,” said Chapman. “She was driven tonight. Anderson is a senior. They are both leaders and they were both driven to get this win. You could see it from the beginning of the game, they were talking to their teammates. They were leading and, tonight, they led by example. I was really proud of my leaders tonight.”
With the Scots still up, 52-51, midway through the fourth, Denman fell hard in a battle for position under the boards, hurting her ankle. If the Scots were going to pull out a win, it would have to be done without Denman, who was helped off the court.
“Payton is going to get X-rays right now,” said Chapman after the game. That’s just preliminary, so we’ll see what we find out.”
When play resumed, it was Burt and Anderson again, hitting their shots to give Highland a 56-52 lead. That lead was quickly cut when North Union’s Rebecca Stofcheck (15 points) landed one of her five 3-pointers for the day to make it a 60-59 Scots’ lead with a little over a minute to go.
The Scots, who were 10-of-10 from the stripe in the fourth, went up 64-61 on a pair of Anderson free throws.
The Wildcats got the ball back with 9-point-9 seconds left on the clock. Already a red-hot 5-of-6 from 3-point range, the Wildcats were looking to send the contest onto overtime.
Caitlin Conrad (eight points) got the open shot from outside the circle, near the top of the key, but was wide right. The ball wound up in the hands of Highland’s Cassie Brown, who drew a foul and converted on both free throws to ice the win for the Scots. Brown was 4-of-4 from the line for the game.
“We knew if (Conrad) missed that shot, that we would still be up if we kept hold of the ball, that there was no chance they could beat us,” said Anderson. “We were just trying to keep hold of it as long as we could. It finally came down to free throws and Cassie ended up making them, which were really critical.”
“Free throws were big and we were working on that,” said Chapman. “We hadn’t been doing real well, but we made our free throws so that was big.”
Down four points and with less than three seconds on the clock, Stofcheck hit her final 3-pointer, but it was not enough for the Wildcats.
For the Scots, this victory was a huge step on the climb to the top of the heap in the MOAC.
“It felt really good,” said Burt. “We knew what we were coming into and we practiced really hard for the past couple of days. It’s only a step further. We’re still getting better and we’re still working. We’ve got Marion Harding next.”
The implications may go even further than the Scots’ place in the conference.
“It was really exciting and, I think, going into tournaments, it will be really good for us because they were undefeated,” said Anderson, who had four assists and leads the Scots with 40 for the season. “It shows that we are a good team, that we can play with good teams and we’re ready to go in tournaments. This is really good for us.”
North Union’s jayvee defeated the junior Scots, 45-30 earlier in the evening. Sam Zuber (11 points) and Taylor Hankins (six points) led the way for the Scots.