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Bristol holds off Maplewood with help of key shot

BRISTOLVILLE — The biggest shot of the night between two NAC rivals didn’t come from the two players who led each of their respective teams in scoring.

Nope, it came from Bille Miller, who didn’t play a season ago and is known more for what she does on the softball diamond, having helped the Bristol Panthers to back-to-back district championships in that sport.

With the game seemingly there for either team to grasp and take control, it was Miller’s 3-pointers in the final minutes that pushed a two-possession game out to three and the cushion the Panthers needed to hold off the Maplewood Rockets, 43-35, in a Northeastern Athletic Conference matchup.

“It looked good coming off her hand,” Bristol coach John King said. “I think when it went in, it gave our girls a second wind. It was right there to see which team was going to take it. She hit it and I don’t even know if she knew it was huge.”

Maybe so, but it helped derail the Rockets’ comeback attempt after a rocky first quarter in which they fell behind by double digits en route to a 15-5 deficit after one.

“We came out, executed and got the shots we wanted to,” King said. “Defensively, we were getting steals and getting out in transition. Those are all the things we want to do.

Marissa Ventura’s bucket and free throw seemed to re-energize the Rockets (2-1, 1-1) as they methodically climbed their way back into the game, trailing 22-17 at the half behind Ventura’s eight points in the quarter.

She finished with a game-high 23 points.

“She’s a go-to player,” Maplewood coach Mark Yoder said. “We have to get the ball in her hands as much as we can. You have to get her involved every time down the floor because she’s just a dynamic player.”

“It’s no secret that Marissa is one of the top players in this area,” King said. “There are a lot of coaches that might not know who she is, but they’re going to find out. We have to play her two sometimes three times a year and it’s always a difficult matchup.

“We know what to expect with them. We know we have to limit her touches. We have to make her life hard. I thought we did a decent job of doing that. She made some really tough shots.”

For King and the Panthers, who were playing their first game of the season, they have a really good player as well in Belle Zirzow, who led Bristol with 20 points and eight rebounds.

Her inside and outside game presented issues for Maplewood for most of the game as Zirzow had 14 points in the first half.

Brittany Mooney added eight along with Miller’s seven.

“We have good players like Belle,” King said. “She’s a premier player and we’re fortunate to have her. We have good supporting players and you never know which one is going to get into double figures. Sometimes, we’ve had three or four players in double figures. They’re all capable of it. It’s a solid group.”

King’s concern coming into the first game of the season was how his players would hold up.

Initially, pretty well, and then he saw what was concerning as the Panthers, in his opinion, were standing around and not moving to their rotations.

“Coming out and getting off to a good start, they were definitely up and ready to play against their rival,” King said. “It’s the first game. There’s a lot of excitement and jitters. I was really happy with how we came out. When our legs are under us, you see how good we could be. You also saw once we got midway through the second quarter, that we were going to be in a battle the rest of this game.”

The second half was just that with the teams trading baskets with Maplewood hanging around and Bristol making the necessary bucket to push it back out to a three-possession game each time it seemed the Rockets were seizing momentum.

“We had some opportunities,” Yoder said. “We just didn’t take advantage. We had a couple of putbacks and wide open shots that we missed. Then we had a couple of mistakes on defense that led to easy baskets for them. You change those and it’s a different outcome.”

It was a welcome surprise to Yoder as he wasn’t sure if his team could hang with the Panthers after what the team lost to graduation after going 22-2 a year ago.

“To be honest, I told them in the locker room, I really didn’t think we could play with this team,” he said. “With what we lost off of last year’s team and what they had coming back. I knew how good they were. They showed me and gave me a little confidence that they can play.”

In the final quarter, the teams traded baskets with Ventura responding each time to get it to four at 37-33 before Miller’s backbreaking 3 stopped Maplewood’s momentum. The Rockets didn’t score again until there was 48 seconds left in regulation.

“That’s just not closing fast enough,” Yoder said. “It’s what we went over the other day. You have to get out to their outside shooters because we knew exactly what they were going to do. They spread you out, move the ball, and take outside shots a lot.”

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