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McDonald nips WR in defensive battle

BERLIN CENTER — Over the past three seasons, the McDonald Blue Devils had been undefeated against the Western Reserve Blue Devils in girls basketball.

Then came that Division IV district title game last season in which Western Reserve got that one elusive win against McDonald. So to think this game wasn’t on McDonald’s mind would have been hard to believe.

The Blue Devils proved that their defense can cause fits as they got past Western Reserve, 34-33, in a Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference matchup.

“To the people that love defense, love effort, and love all the stuff like that, I think it was worth the price of admission,” Western Reserve coach Steve Miller said. “We told the girls that there are other teams in the tournament that want to move on, but if your are a betting man, this was round one of three. Last year, they punched us twice and it hurt us and it motivated us.

“Every day we had that burning feeling. We worked and worked and worked to put ourselves in the position to beat them in the finals. I told them that you don’t think for 300 days this team didn’t want another shot at you. They’re a great team, a great defensive team.”

Sophia Costantino led McDonald (11-1, 7-0) with 10 points. Danielle Vuletich scored 10 points to lead Western Reserve (10-2, 6-1).

Initially in the opening quarter, it felt like McDonald wouldn’t have an answer for Vuletich as she scored eight points.

“What is she, 6-3?” McDonald coach Amy Dolsak said. “It’s a difference-maker in some situations. I felt like we could match up with her for the most part. I thought we did a good job tonight.”

That person who matched up was Molly Howard, who held her own on defense against Vuletich who got one final field goal in the third quarter. Howard herself was held in check for most of the game until her 3 with 3:24 left in the fourth quarter gave McDonald its first lead, 30-27, since it was ahead by a score of 16-15 in the second quarter.

“They have nice overall size,” Miller said. “They don’t have the one big one in the middle. We didn’t know exactly how they would play us. We’re a very good perimeter shooting team, but we knew they weren’t going to just leave Dani standing in the paint all day long with Molly.

“Molly did a good job today, staying out of foul trouble, walling her up and making the shots difficult. They were all contested and challenged.”

After a back-and-forth affair in the first quarter when Western Reserve held a 13-11 lead, it seemed like the game was poised to possible be high-scoring.

Instead both teams buckled down and it became a battle of attrition with every possession being valuable, as only 16 field goals were made between both teams in the final three quarters.

“Both teams know each other very well,” Dolsak said. “When you play a team so many times like that and they know each other so well, it’s probably going to be a low-scoring game. Not only that, both teams were tired because they were fighting so hard. It’s hard to knock down shots when you are exhausted like that. Defense held out in the end.”

With Western Reserve up 21-17 at the half, it got some separation when Olivia Pater’s 3-pointer with 4:25 left in the third quarter made it 27-21.

Instead of Western Reserve seizing momentum, McDonald ratcheted up the defense some more, holding Western Reserve scoreless for nearly 10 minutes until Laura Sigworth’s 3 with two minutes left in regulation tied the game at 30.

“I guess I was glad when we faced some adversity and got down, we had the composure and the guts to take some of those shots and to make them,” Miller said. “They responded back every time. Neither team buckled and neither team folded.”

Back-to-back buckets from Howard and Costantino made it 34-30. Pater’s 3 shortly after made it a one point game, 34-33, with 1:03 left. McDonald couldn’t make its free throws in the bonus which set up one last opportunity for Western Reserve with three seconds left in regulation.

The inbounds pass went to Vuletich in the paint, but Howard’s defense forced up an off-balance shot that didn’t hit rim.

“We got the ball to her point blank there at the end,” Miller said. “If we get that opportunity, we’re going to take it every time. Today, they came up with a defensive stop. We’re disappointed.

“Even if she makes that shot, what difference does it make? One great team lost. One great team won. There’s round two and there’s round three. We don’t want to lose any of them, we want to win all three of them, but if we’re going to take a pick, there’s still one out there.”

The win kept McDonald undefeated in league play and gave Dolsak her 100th victory at McDonald.

“I’m just very proud of the team effort tonight,” she said.

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