JACKSON, Ohio — There wasn’t much charm to this third time.
Host Waterford clinched its third straight regional final appearance and led wire-to-wire while ending Eastern’s magical 2017 season on Thursday night during a 50-33 decision in a Division IV Region 15 semifinal girls basketball contest held at Jackson High School in the Apple City.
The Lady Wildcats (23-3) — the reigning D-4 state champions — picked up their third straight win over the visiting Lady Eagles (21-4) this winter while also claiming its seventh straight victory over EHS. Waterford claimed the regular season matchups by counts of 55-48 and 37-33.
WHS has now won 11 consecutive postseason contests overall and also beat Eastern at Jackson for the first time since claiming a 44-39 decision in the 2006 district championship.
Eastern — which put together its first 20-win campaign since winning the 2014 Division IV championship — knew coming in that it would take a near-perfect performance to knock off the Lady Cats. And early on, one could tell that that wasn’t going to happen.
EHS missed its final seven shots and went 1-for-9 in the opening canto, then turned in a 3-of-8 shooting performance in the second canto. The guests were also outrebounded by a 17-9 overall margin in the first half, which included a 10-5 deficit on the offensive glass.
Those second chances, combined with a 39-percent shooting effort in the first half, allowed Waterford to grow its lead out to as many as 15 points before securing a 27-13 edge at the break.
The Lady Eagles never came closer than 11 points the rest of the way as WHS nailed 6-of-9 free throws in the fourth quarter while wrapping up the 17-point outcome — the largest lead of the game.
With the win, Waterford advances to Saturday night’s D-4 Region 15 championship game at Pickerington High School North and will face Danville at 7:30 p.m. DHS posted a 42-30 win over Fairfield Christian Academy in the other Region 15 semifinal contest held Thursday night at PHSN.
It was a frustrating evening for first-year EHS coach Jacob Parker, mainly due to the fact that his troops didn’t come close to putting together their best 32 minutes of basketball.
Nonetheless, Parker was still proud of where this year’s journey ended up — even if the final planned destination wasn’t reached.
“I told the girls after the game that I wish there was a way to measure how proud I am of what they’ve done this year, because I don’t think that measurement exists,” Parker said. “We’ve accomplished some things this year that hasn’t happened since we won state in 2014, rather it be winning 20 games or getting back to regionals.
“The thing that is most impressive about this group, however, is how well they handled adversity. Through all of the injuries, the girls always came in ready to practice and gave everything they had. These kids have a lot of character about them, and I am proud of them for what they’ve done this year.”
Alli Kern gave Waterford a permanent lead with 5:18 left in the opening canto following a trifecta, but Laura Pullins answered with a basket 16 seconds later to cut the deficit down to 3-2. EHS, however, was never closer the rest of the way.
The Lady Cats followed by hitting 3-of-5 shots while making a 9-1 surge over the final 3:52 of the period, allowing the hosts to secure a 12-3 cushion after one full canto.
WHS hit three of its first four shot attempts to start the second, which led to a 6-3 run and an 18-6 cushion at the 5:32 mark of the second period.
Waterford’s largest first half lead came at 27-12 following an Alli Kern trifecta at the 1:08 mark, but an Elizabeth Collins free throw with 52.2 seconds left allowed EHS to enter the break trailing by 14 points.
The Lady Eagles hit 4-of-17 shot attempts and committed six turnovers in the opening 16 minutes of play, while the hosts netted 9-of-23 floor attempts and committed four turnovers during that same span.
Both teams went 5-of-12 from the field in the third canto, with Eastern claiming a small 13-11 scoring edge that allowed the guests to trim the deficit down to 38-26. Becca Pullins also capped a small 5-4 run with a trifecta with 4:24 remaining to close the gap down to 42-31.
Waterford, however, ended regulation with an 8-2 charge that locked up the program’s fourth regional final appearance since the 2010 campaign.
WHS outrebounded the Lady Eagles by a 34-20 overall margin, which included a 13-5 edge on the offensive glass. Waterford also committed 12 of the 19 total turnovers in the contest, with eight of those coming in the second half.
Eastern connected on 11-of-43 field goal attempts for 26 percent, including a 2-of-11 effort from three-point territory for 18 percent. The guests were also 9-of-17 at the free throw line for 53 percent.
Laura Pullins — who finishes second on the all-time girls scoring list with 1,299 career points — led Eastern with a game-high 16 points, followed by Elizabeth Collins with a dozen markers and a team-best nine rebounds. Pullins also hauled in six rebounds in the setback.
Becca Pullins was next with three points, while Alyson Bailey completed the EHS tally with two points.
It was the final basketball game for seniors Laura Pullins and Hannah Bailey — who did not play due to injury — in the Green and White. That duo — both of whom were on the 2014 championship squad — put together a combined 84-19 record during their prep careers.
Experience clearly favored Waterford headed into the matchup, and that proved to be a major factor in the final outcome.
But, as Parker noted afterwards, his troops picked up a wealth of experience this year — much like his two seniors did as freshmen. And, in looking back on things, Parker thought that his upperclassmen left quite a mark on the program — and on him — during their tenure.
“I think the experience factor played a role tonight, and tip your cap to Waterford because they just played a really solid game. Our youth showed itself a little bit tonight, but this group will grow from it and be more determined going into next season,” Parker said. “The toughest part about this is saying goodbye to Hannah and Laura, the two seniors. As a first-year coach, you couldn’t ask for two better leaders or two better kids to have than them.
“Those are the last two remaining members of the state title team, but they also played big roles in getting us back to regionals and 20 wins this year. Most kids don’t even get to experience that in a career, so I hope they understand how high they can hold their heads when they look back at their playing days at Eastern.”
Waterford connected on 17-of-40 field goal attempts for 43 percent, including a 5-of-13 effort from behind the arc for 38 percent. The hosts were also 11-of-17 at the charity stripe for 65 percent.
Alli Kern — who was chosen as the Division IV Southeast District player of the year by the Associated Press — paced Waterford with 15 points and nine rebounds, followed by Megan Ball with nine points and eight boards.
Rachael Adams was next with seven points, while Hannah Duff, Emily Kern and Hayley Duff each contributed six markers. Morgan Lang rounded out the winning tally with one point.
This was the third time in history that these two TVC Hocking rivals met up with one another in the regional semifinals, with this contest serving as Waterford’s lone victory. Eastern claimed regional semifinal wins over WHS in both 2011 and again in 2014.
Eastern — which lost three of its four decisions this winter to Waterford, with the other coming in overtime to Oak Hill — went 14-2 and finished second in the TVC Hocking standings.
Waterford can become only the second team in southeast Ohio history to qualify for the state tournament in three straight years with a win Saturday night. Sardinia Eastern Brown previously accomplished the feat during the 2000, 2001 and 2002 postseasons.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.