By JON RUDDER
MINERAL RIDGE - Despite putting up lofty numbers offensively, the United girls basketball team takes pride in being a stingy defensive team.
That stout defense was once again on display in the Division II district semifinals and powered the top-seeded Golden Eagles to a 50-29 win over fourth-seeded Girard on Thursday night at Mineral Ridge High School.
"We were very focused and we just wanted to get it done," senior Emily Zehentbauer said. "We kill it in practice with defense and that's how we played tonight."
United - allowing an average of only 36.6 points per contest- won its 15th straight game to improve to 23-2. The Eagles will go for a second straight district championship when they play sixth-seeded Champion at 2 p.m. Saturday at Mineral Ridge High School.
UNITED: 12-17-11-10 - 50
GIRARD SCORING: Hayley Spalla 1-0-2, Olivia Berry 0-0-0, Alasjia Dykes 2-1-5, Michaella Angelo 1-0-2, Shymara Dykes 3-2-8, Marina Samuels 0-0-0, Lindsay Durkin 2-0-6, Bree Bishop 2-0-4, Mmiranda Boyle 1-0-2, Holly Clark 0-0-0, Valerie Thomas 0-0-0. TOTALS: 12, 3-15: 29
UNITED SCORING: Emily Zehentbauer 7-2-17, Sam Spitler 0-0-0, Tara Gray 5-0-10, Sydney Moats 0-0-0, MacKenzie Gatchel 3-0-7, Cassidy Yoder 1-3-5, Mollie Phillis 0-2-2, Courtney Hydrick 3-3-9. TOTALS: 19, 10-15: 50
Three-pointers: Girard 2 (Durkin), United 2 (Zehentbauer, Gatchel).
CHAMPION: 11-10-11-19 - 51
PYMATUNING VALLEY: 9-8-14-18 - 49
CHAMPION SCORING: Jordyn Skaggs 3-1-8, Gabby Lamont 4-2-13, Heather Shaver 0-0-0, Kelly Robinson 2-0-5, Emma Nicholas 0-1-1, MacKenzie Kiser 10-4-24: TOTALS: 19, 8-15: 51
PYMATUNING VALLEY SCORING: Kelsea Brown 5-3-13, Abby Hamilton 1-0-3, Rebecca Dillon 1-0-2, Geena Gabriel 5-2-13, Megan Stech 1-0-2, Michaelia Skleres 6-0-12, Heather Brant 0-4-4. TOTALS: 19, 9-16: 49
Three-pointers: Champion 5 (Lamont 3, Skaggs, Robinson), Pymatuning Valley 2 (Hamilton, Gabriel).
Zehentbauer led the Eagles with 17 points and nine rebounds. Tara Gray also netted 10 points.
United's offense sputtered early, failing to convert on several opportunities offensively while repeatedly sending the Indians to the free throw line on the other end.
"We've never played these girls before, but we have seen them play," Zehentbauer said. "We were just kind of feeling each other out through the first couple minutes."
Fortunately for the Eagles, Girard went just 1-for-8 from the free throw line while the two teams became acquainted with one another. That is, until the United offense found its form.
Courtney Hydrick kept the Eagles heads above water by netting United's first six points in a slow paced first quarter. However, after collecting her second foul in the opening frame, she was forced to the bench. Hydrick did not return for the duration of the first half.
The Eagles continued on, business as usual.
"It shows how tough these girls are and that you can mix and match them in there and they're going to play together," United coach Sam Mathias said. "They love playing basketball and they're going to get the job done when you ask them to."
United pushed their lead to double digits with the 5-foot-10 senior relegated to being a spectator. While pulling away, United locked down on defense, giving up just six points in the second stanza and 14 for the first half.
"We knew their two main scorers and we had to key on them," Mathias said. I thought we did a tremendous job with the big girl (Bree Bishop) down low, she has been a force in the tournament. I don't want to say that we completely stopped her but, I think we did a heck of a job on her and I'm proud of my big girls down low."
Bishop finished just four points. Girard was led by Shymara Dykes with eight points. No other Indians scored more than five points.
"We just didn't make shots when you're playing a good, quality team like United you have to make shots," Girard coach Andy Saxon said. "We missed free throws, that could've been a four or five point game if we make our free throws early on."
Girard shot just 3-of-15 from the charity stripe for the game. Coupled with numerous turnovers, the Indians were also unable to slow down the Eagles potent transition tempo through much of the game.
"They have a little bit of size on us and press a lot, So we were trying to avoid that type of game," Saxon said. "But we got into a running game with them and started turning the ball over, and when you turn the ball over it leads to easy baskets."
Despite going a span of 4 minutes and 28 seconds in the fourth quarter without recording a point, the Eagles were still able to maintain their double digit lead because of their patience with the basketball and relentless defense - a staple that was missing while closing out the Eagles previous win over South Range.
"We took care of the basketball like we had worked on and we talked about at half time if we were up in the fourth quarter," Mathias said. "We knew that they had to come after us so we spaced them out and had bigger gaps to go through and attack. We got about five or six easy layups there at the end of the game."
Once United stretched the floor and made the Indians play their game again, the Eagles closed out the game on a 10-2 run.
"We snapped the ball around a little bit harder and a little bit crisper and the girls were confident because they were in the rhythm of the game," Mathias said. "And you can't complain about holding a team under 30 points in the district semifinal."
Cassidy Yoder returned to the Eagles' lineup after missing one game with a foot injury. Yoder tallied five points.
"It helps out with our depth because Cassidy played a lot last year and logged a ton of minutes," Mathias said. "So it helped having experience come off the bench. She didn't look like she missed a beat, either. She was watching the girls in practice and knew what we were doing."
Girard finished with an 18-7 record.