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Blue Devil defense stops Ridge

Staff photo / Brian Yauger Mineral Ridge’s Alexa Harkins (23) of Mineral Ridge battles under the boards with Danielle Vuletich of Western Reserve.

MINERAL RIDGE — Western Reserve coach Steve Miller has been worried about peaking. When a team reaches a certain point, he thinks it’s harder to notice progression.

Miller isn’t as worried after a strong showing Thursday night when his Blue Devils beat Mineral Ridge, 72-42.

“I was concerned coming in tonight because I felt as a team that we had plateaued,” Miller said. “I think it’s difficult when you become pretty good to see improvements. … Looking at ourselves lately, I feel like we plateaued and we haven’t been improving, so I’ve been concerned.”

Miller wanted to see energy out of his team coming out of the gate. He got his wish with the Blue Devils holding Mineral Ridge to a mere five points in the first quarter and 11 total in the first half.

“I thought we played a great defensive first half,” Miller said. “I thought we came out, we were focused, we played with some energy and, to be honest, that’s what we were talking about at practice.”

Staff photo / Brian Yauger Candice Miller of Mineral Ridge leaps in the air to put a shot up. Miller finished the game with 11 points.

As for the Rams, coach Matt Cluse is looking to be the team that everyone wants to avoid come the tournament.

“I know some teams out there that probably wouldn’t want to see us in the first round,” Cluse said. “You might beat us, but at the end of the day you’re going to get beat up a little bit.

“We’re not a soft team by any means … This happened to us last year. We played Berkshire and we were much better than them, but they were very aggressive and banged us up.”

Danielle Vuletich was a brick wall for the Reserve defense. Vuletich finished with 22 rebounds along with her game-high 26 points. Vuletich’s size was crucial in the paint and forced the Rams to take difficult shots.

Alexa Harkins, who was honored before the game for becoming the school’s all-time scoring leader, led the Rams (6-9, 4-6), scoring 19 points. The Reserve defense was aggressive, forcing Harkins to the charity stripe 10 times where she converted on eight of her shots.

The Blue Devils are still searching for their style of play, according to Miller. Keeping focused is the prime issue.

“We’re trying to find our identity,” Miller said. “We’ve always been a decent defensive team. We live and die by the 3-pointer even though we’ve got a great ball player (Vuletich) inside. Moving forward we need to pay attention to details, be focused and play with energy, passion and enthusiasm.”

The race for the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference title is winding down to a two-team battle between Blue Devils — McDonald, which is undefeated, and Western Reserve which sits at 13-2 and 9-1 in the MVAC.

With tournament time approaching, Miller is hoping to see his team reach the energy level he saw last season against McDonald in the postseason. The key, according to him, is hunger.

“It’s focus, finding the love and the passion of the sport again,” Miller said. “It’s learning to be hungry again. I think last year when McDonald beat us both times we were hungry and we really focused and were committed to that showdown in the district final.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’ve had that hunger … I told them that we’ve got to do a little soul-searching. We have to find that hunger.”

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