For a calendar year, the Westlake girls basketball team was nagged by a Division I district semifinal loss they felt was premature.
So, in that time, the Demons made the choice to work harder in the weight room, on the practice floor and during games. If they were going to win the program’s first district championship since 2016 they would do so as a unit, leaving nothing to chance.
And after 19 regular-season wins, two tournament wins and a slew of motivational reminders, there they were, with senior Gina Adams at the free throw line, putting the finishing touches on the district title they’d prepared for all along.
With a 59-48 victory over fifth-seeded Amherst (14-12) Friday night at Elyria Catholic High School, second-seeded Westlake (22-3) earned the right to celebrate, which it did after the final buzzer when the entire team stormed the court. Soon after, players and staff cut down the nets on both baskets.
The Demons will play in a regional semifinal Wednesday at Norwalk High School at 8 p.m. against Toledo Notre Dame Academy.
“Top to bottom, we’ve just got a great crew,” Demons coach Karen Swanson Haan said. “We knew it was going to be tough coming in. We knew (the Comets) were going to play great. We knew they were going to defend, and we knew (senior post Amaya) Staton would score, but we knew we just had to hang in there and finish.”
As has been the case all season, the Demons solved an opponent together. They started the game in a 2-3 zone defense, daring the Comets to shoot long-range jumpers over their length. For much of the first half, it failed. The Demons trailed 10-5 early and 17-10 with five minutes to go in the second quarter as the Comets, led by three 3-pointers from Faith Lewis, slowed the game down to a crawl and controlled the pace.
But then the Demons, buoyed by eight second-quarter points from senior Abby Carrington, sped things up just enough to get comfortable. After a Stephanie Randar free throw tied the game at 22, Carrington’s late bucket put them ahead 24-22 just before halftime, completing a 12-3 run.
They never trailed again.
“We needed to attack,” Carrington said. “We know our strengths, and we just had to get everything we had on the court. And that’s what we did…(To win) feels amazing. I feel like we deserved it because we put in so much work in the off-season and in practice every single day. These girls are awesome.”
Adams scored a game-high 25 points for Westlake and added four rebounds and three steals. Carrington, with whom she recalled watching the 2016 district final as eighth-graders in the same gym, scored 21. Junior Summer Salem knocked down two threes in the second half to increase the lead and Randar grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.
As a one-two punch, Adams and Carrington made sure to set a tone for the rest of the team to follow.
“(I’ve been playing with a lot of my teammates) for a long time, since fifth grade,” Adams said. “Me and Abby, we go way back. Honestly, that girl is my ride-or-die, so that’s why we have so much on-court chemistry with each other and everyone else. After this, we’re all going to hang out together. We never leave each other’s side, and I think that’s what separates us from other teams. We’re just a big family.”
The Demons went up 12 in the fourth, then forced the Comets to foul to slow the clock. They went to the free throw line eight times, with Adams making six of those trips. She calmly sank seven of her last eight to close out the final seconds.
Defensively, the Demons improved when they switched to a man-to-man scheme and quickened the pace. They forced nine of the Comets’ 14 turnovers in the second half, and managed to control the glass at both ends, outrebounding them 21-15. Staton, a Cleveland State commit who scored 16 points, was held to just five rebounds.
“We’re not a slow-paced team,” Adams said. “We want to speed things up, we want to go, and we want to get in people’s faces, so I definitely feel like we had to switch into a man-to-man defense to kind of get (Amherst) into stuff.”
Lewis finished with 16 points for Amherst, which made an impressive run to the final by upsetting two of the top four seeds. On Tuesday, they beat top-seeded Olmsted Falls, 35-33, to set up the showdown with Westlake, the Southwestern Conference foes’ third meeting of the season.
“I thought we did everything we could do tonight,” Comets coach Jay Valadez said. “The girls gave every bit of energy they had. I wouldn’t change a thing…It’s a big stage and a lot going on. Their energy got the better of them at times. Overall, I think this (run) shows we’re going in the right direction.”
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