The Wadsworth Grizzlies celebrate after defeating Strongsville 39-27 in the Norwalk Regional championship game. RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE
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NORWALK — Peyton Banks held the ball with two hands near center court as the final seconds melted away. Kacie Evans played the part of bouncer on the bench, holding her teammates back from storming the court a tad too early.
The ironic part? Evans lost her mind when the moment to celebrate arrived, jumping up and down with such fury her blondish-brown ponytail appeared as if it could fly off at any moment.
Forgive her. She’s new at this after sitting out the Wadsworth girls basketball team’s 2015-16 state championship season.
“It was the feeling of going to state — the student section chanting it, everyone thinking about it,” a jacked-up Evans said. “Looking at my teammates, seeing them tear up, it was insane.”
For the second time in three years and sixth overall, the Grizzlies are headed to Columbus after executing another dazzling defensive clinic to eliminate upstart Strongsville 39-27 in the Norwalk Division I Regional championship.
A rematch is in store Friday at 6 p.m., as Solon (25-2) knocked off Massillon Jackson out of the Canton Regional. The Comets defeated the Grizzlies (24-3) 49-35 in the regular-season finale, but Wadsworth wasn’t worried about that Friday.
All it was worried about against the Mustangs (21-5) was finding a way to keep on truckin.’
“I couldn’t help but tear up, and I hate when I do that,” said guard Maddie Movsesian, a key role player throughout. “In the back of my head, (Columbus) was always the goal. We’ve accomplished everything we’ve wanted to this season (so far), so to win again and be here (in Norwalk) again, it just feels so great.”
Wadsworth scored 34 of the final 50 points, highlighted by a devastating 19-0 run that took a whopping 14:48 of the first, second and third quarters. Strongsville had six turnovers on its first seven possessions of the second, when it missed all six shots, and was deep into frustration when talented freshman forward Reagan Bass (game-high 11 points) picked up her third foul at the 4:21 mark.
The run ended when Shawnee State recruit Marnae Holland (7 points, 5 rebounds) cut the deficit to 24-13 with 5:59 left in the third. The damage was done, however, as Evans (6 points, 9 rebounds) scored six points, Banks (9 points), Taylor Leatherman (5) and Kylee Batey (5) hit 3-pointers and Strongsville couldn’t come within the same zip code of replicating its early magic.
The closest the Mustangs got the rest of the night was 29-23 to start the fourth quarter. At that point, versatile 6-foot-2 Kent State recruit Lindsey Thall (2 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks) was still without a shot attempt, partly because Wadsworth packed the paint and dared low-scoring players to shoot.
The Grizzlies scored the first four points of the fourth and effectively played keepaway the rest of the night, as Strongsville scored two points over the final 5:21. Point guard Sophia Fortner (7 points) made 4-of-4 free throws in the final 1:37, making her 16-for-16 in the fourth quarter over the last three games.
“Definitely defense, pressuring them as hard as we could,” Evans said of the 19-0 run. “We were playing our game, which is playing as hard as we could play.”
The recipe for an upset usually involves a great start, and the Mustangs got the secondary production they needed to go ahead 11-5, mainly wide-open 3-pointers by guards Drew Robinson (4 assists) and Abbi Moore.
At the other end, Wadsworth was out of sorts due to Robinson’s fantastic face-guarding of Fortner and rim-protecting defense from Thall. The Grizzlies also battled turnover and brick issues but only trailed 11-7 at the quarter break.
Fortner still had the ball most of the time, but Wadsworth got a big lift from Movsesian, last season’s emergency starting point guard after Fortner tore an ACL. The senior played turnover free when the score was still in doubt, including when she had a bucket and three assists during the 19-0 run.
“There was a ton of people here and it was really loud in here, so I don’t know what it is,” Movsesian said. “Sometimes we need a little bit of time to get into the groove of the game and understand how we have to play.”
Only feet from Evans at the final buzzer were Fortner and Banks, close friends and ACL reconstructive surgery survivors. A long, relieved hug was all they needed because they’d been through too much together.
They were on Cloud Nine, realizing the final chapters of their careers have yet to be written.
“I don’t know if you could compare it to (2016), but it feels great to be here and great to move on,” Banks said. “That’s a real special moment.”
l Evans left Norwalk for a volleyball tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, following the net-cutting ceremony.
l Strongsville volunteer assistant Steve Borgis was Medina County’s winningest coach with 222 wins at Buckeye. Wadsworth’s Andrew Booth has since surpassed him.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Wadsworth 39, Strongsville 27
Norwalk Division I Regional Final
WADSWORTH 7 12 10 10 — 39
STRONGSVILLE 11 0 12 4 — 27
Wadsworth — Taylor Leatherman 2-3 0-0 5, Peyton Banks 3-8 2-3 9, Lexi Lance 1-6 1-2 3, Maddie Movsesian 2-5 0-0 4, Sophia Fortner 1-5 5-5 7, Kylee Batey 2-5 0-0 5, Kacie Evans 1-3 4-6 6, E’Anna Won 0-0 0-0 0, Allison Elchlinger 0-0 0-0 0, Molly Palecek 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 12-35 12-16 39.
Strongsville — Marnae Holland 3-8 0-0 7, Reagan Bass 4-8 2-2 11, Lindsey Thall 1-3 0-0 2, Abbi Moore 1-3 1-2 4, Drew Robinson 1-4 0-2 3, Sydney Sallee 0-2 0-0 0, Sarah Robertson 0-2 0-0 0, Maddy Humbach 0-1 0-0 0. TOTALS: 10-31 3-6 27.
3-point goals — Wadsworth 3-8 (Leatherman 0-1, Banks 1-2, Batey 1-3, Movsesian 0-1, Fortner 0-1), Strongsville 4-10 (Bass 1-1, Holland 1-2, Moore 1-3, Robinson 1-3, Sallee 0-1). Rebounds — Wadsworth 22 (Evans 9), Strongsville 18 (Thall 6). Assists — Wadsworth 10 (Movsesian 4), Strongsville 8 (Robinson 4). Turnovers — Wadsworth 14 (Banks 4), Strongsville 16 (Robinson, Thall 5). Fouls — Wadsworth 7, Strongsville 17. Fouled out — Holland. Records — Wadsworth (24-3), Strongsville (21-5).