Mathews wins NAC Challenge matchup

Tribune Chronicle / Eric Murray Emily Strama (13) of Mathews drives against Lordstown’s Kaylynn Higinbotham Thursday night at Mathews where the Mustangs beat the Red Devils, 47-33, in the Northeastern Athletic Conference Crossover Challenge. The Mathews-Lordstown pairing matched the champions of the NAC’s two divisions — the Stars and Striples.

VIENNA — The Mathews Mustangs used a strong first half to take a 47-33 victory over Lordstown, in Thursday night’s girls basketball Northeastern Athletic Conference Crossover Challenge. Mathews led by 15 points at half, thanks to an 18-point first-half performance by senior Paige Sponsler.

Stars Division champion Mathews, which had previously lost to Lordstown by 25 points, got a little redemption with the win. According to Mustangs head coach Joe Bornemiss, his team switched up its strategy this time around.

“I thought our half-court defense was outstanding tonight,” Bornemiss said. “That sets the tone for the whole game, when you’re able to box out and force them (Lordstown) to taking their bigs out of the game. You know you’re doing something right and I thought we did that, that was the gamechanger in the whole game.”

Mathews opened the game on a 6-0 run, with Sponsler knocking in a putback off the glass, forcing Lordstown to spend an early timeout. The Mustangs extended their lead to 12-4, but the Red Devils’ Kaylynn Higinbotham answered the call with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws late in the period, closing the deficit to 14-9.

Alexis Weekley opened the second quarter with a quick basket to cut the Mathews lead down to three, before Morgan Williams found Kat Schubert on a wide open layup. Ahead by five, Mathews turned to Sponsler, who nailed three-straight 3-pointers, quickly bringing the Mustang lead up to 14 points, and eventually, it went to 15, 31-16, at the half.

Jordan Beach, left, of Lordstown is guarded by Emily Strama of Mathews Thursday night.

“Give them a lot of credit. They came out, they came to play, they came with the intensity,” Lordstown coach Dave Smith said of Mathews. “It just seemed like they wanted it more than we did.

“Paige just lit us up. We tried to do whatever we could to stop her from shooting, (but) she did a great job of getting herself open, (and) her teammates did a great job of finding her and screening for her. We didn’t help and get out on her and she knocked them down.”

In fact, according to Smith, the biggest difference between the last matchup with Mathews and this time around was precisely the fact that the Mustangs were able to create more shots for their go-to scorer, Sponsler.

Lordstown, the champion of the Stripes Division, continued to make mental errors — such as offensive fouls, errant passes leading to turnovers and bad shot selection — as the second half began.

Sponsler hit a corner 3, then Schubert fed Cara Bornemiss on a 2-on-1 bounce pass, and Bornemiss proceeded to lay it in off the glass, extending the Mustang lead to 19 points. Sponsler finished with 25 points on the night.

The two squads could meet again soon. The two teams are both in the lower bracket of the Division IV Mineral Ridge District, and if Lordstown beats Sebring and Mathews beats Lowellville on Wednesday night, the two would play in a sectional bracket final on Feb. 25.

For Lordstown (13-8), it has endured a few losses lately. According to Smith, finding the right motivation will get his team back on track.

“Yeah, we’re on the downslide,” Smith said. “I think we need to start coming with a little bit more intensity, determination and want, and drive that we need to win. I think they got it in their heads that these kind of games don’t mean anything, they want to wait for tournaments. But I try to explain to them that every game should mean something.”

Mathews (14-7), meanwhile, is celebrating its first league title since 2006, a goal of Bornemiss and company throughout the season. According to the coach, it all starts with his dedicated seniors, which includes Sponsler, Schubert and Williams.

“Those girls have worked their tails off since they were freshmen,” Bornemiss said. “They sweat on this floor, they put the time in, and I’ve never had doubts — never.”

“There wasn’t a lot of girls that came out when I first started, and now you can see the student body here. We’re getting more girls out than we’ve ever had, we had 15 girls out this year. It’s just the changing of the program and that’s what I told those girls, ‘When you put a number up on a banner, 10 years, 15 years from now, you’re gonna be able to say that you’re the ones that changed that program.’ “