MINERAL RIDGE - With her team holding a two-point lead with just 5 seconds remaining in Thursday night's Division III district semifinal contest against Pymatuming Valley, Champion senior Mackenzie Kiser, for once, was nowhere near the ball.
Having fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, Kiser had to watch.
"It was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever experienced," she said.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Members of the Champion girls’ basketball team celebrate after defeating Pymatuning Valley, 51-49, in a Division III?district semifinal.
Kiser and her teammates exploded into celebration as Geena Gabriel's running shot just before the buzzer bounced off the rim, sealing a 51-49 win and a date with United in Saturday's district championship game.
"I've been wanting this for years," Kiser, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, said.
It's been a long time since the Golden Flashes made a district finals appearance. Coach Jeff Thompson, who during his tenure has guided Champion to several district semifinal games, attributes this year's success to resiliency.
"Sometimes we look, sometimes we look bad, but we're resilient and we make plays," Thompson said. "We dive on the floor, and that's the attitude you have to have. One thing I'll say about my kids is they play defense."
The Lakers got off to a solid start in the contest, building a small lead behind three consecutive baseline jumpers from Michealia Skleres. Champion responded, however, as senior Gabby Lamont buried one of her three 3-pointers in the game, all of which nearly hit the rafters and netted the hoop without touching the rim. Champion led 11-9 after one quarter of play, and took a 21-17 advantage into the locker room.
The game was tight heading into the fourth quarter with the Flashes holding onto a 32-31 advantage. However, with Kiser's inside presence, Champion went on an 11-0 run to begin the final period of play, leading at one point 43-31.
Laker coach Jeff Compan decided to pick up the pressure and, in turn, Kiser began to pick up fouls. With her team leading 47-39 late in the contest, Kiser fouled out.
"When Mackenzie fouled out, we decided to spread the floor and look to try and get some lay-ups and go to the free-throw line, but we're definitely a different rebounding team without her."
A coast-to-coast finish by Gabriel, followed by timely buckets from Skleres and Kelsea Brown cut the Champion lead to 50-49. Following a foul, Lamont hit the front-end of a one-and-one, with Gabriel securing the rebound for the game's final attempt.
"It was one of the best feelings I've had in four years of basketball," senior Jordyn Skaggs said. "I was nervous, but I had faith that we could come here and win. We had a rough start to our season but I knew if we played well we could beat whoever we played."
Lamont finished with 12 points for Champion (16-9), and added four assists. Brown led PV with 13 points, while Gabriel had 12 and Skleres added 10.
"I'm proud of these girls," Compan said following the loss. "We won 18 straight games this year. We hit a few dry spells tonight but I thought we battled. I'm sad about the outcome but I'm proud of the effort."
Champion now sets its sights on United (23-2), which defeated Girard 50-29 in Thursday night's nightcap. The Eagles feature a lot of overall size, including at the guard position.
"They're a very well-coached team," Thompson said. "They have great athletes and we'll be happy and ready to play them on Saturday."