HANOVERTON-With four new starters, the United girls basketball team is not the same club that ripped through the Inter-Tri County League upper tier the past five seasons.
Wednesday night against unbeaten South Range, the Eagles showed they are still a team to be reckoned with.
United fought South Range every step of the way before the Raiders finally slipped by with a hard-earned 54-49 win in overtime.
The Raiders captured their first win against United in four seasons and kept themselves in control of the conference race, improving to 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the ITCL upper tier.
"Wow," South Range coach Tony Matisi said. "I knew they weren't going to go easy. United has been king in this league for so long and its been a long time since we've beat them. Our girls came in knowing we were going to have to really work for it and we did."
The Eagles fall to 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the upper tier. United's three league losses are as many as the Eagles have had in the last four years combined.
"Against the best team in the league we responded great tonight," United coach Sam Mathias said. "We were tough on the boards, never backed down and kept clawing the whole night."
On a night where neither team could establish a consistent offensive flow, senior guard Sierra Petrella led the Raiders with 16 points and put South Range ahead to stay 50-48 when she hit a jumper and was fouled with just under two minutes left in overtime. Center Sara Durr had seven points and 11 rebounds, while Jordan Youngs had nine points.
"This win means everything for us," Petrella said. "Over the summer when we got back in the gym, beating United was one of the first things that we brought up. We knew they were going to give us a good game and it feels great to get out of here with a win."
Petrella banged her knee hard a few times and was hobbling noticeably as the game wore on, but doggedly kept driving to the basket and hustling on defense.
"Sierra is our emotional and mental leader," Matisi said. "She is the grittiest girl I've been around and is always the last two tell you she is hurt. She really stepped up tonight."
"Just a few bruises," Petrella smiled. "I should be ready to go for Crestview tomorrow night."
The Raiders looked to be in control in the closing two minutes, but a handful of missed free throws and turnovers kept the eagles alive.
United was down 45-41 with 49 seconds left when Eagles guard Mackenzie Gatchel got the crowd jumping with a step-back three.After Morgan Smith stole the ball back for United, the ball went right to Gatchel who missed a one-handed runner but got the rebound and was fouled. After missing the first attempt, she drained the second to tie the game with 17 seconds left. Gatchel finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists, while forward MacKenzie Firth battled the bigger Durr inside and had 13 points and seven rebounds.
"We had been really struggling offensively down the stretch, but Mackenzie's our leader and she knows what to do with the ball," Firth said. "She really helped out a lot late in the game."
On the next possession, Youngs was whistled for a double-dribble, giving the Eagles a shot to win the game with seven seconds left, but the Raider defense on Gatchel was stifling, forcing the senior to give up the ball and the United could only muster a last second heave.
"Above all, I didn't want Gatchel to beat us," Matisi said. "If someone else beat us that was fine. We had to respect her step-back three and we did a great job of doubling her and forcing her to pass."
In overtime, the Eagles had one more chance, down 52-49 with 15 seconds left but the Raiders were smothering once again, and United could not get off a three-point attempt.
"They are all very quick defenders and played very tight on us," Mathias said. "You're not going to beat them off the dribble very often. It frustrated us."
It was United's defense in the early going, which disrupted the Raiders flow right off the bat and set the tone for the game. The Eagles played a very tight man-to-man and made every bucket a hard grind.
"We scouted them earlier in the season and their man-to-man was a lot looser," Matisi said. "Sam (Mathias) must have really got down to business over Christmas, because it was a lot tighter."
"They jumped to the ball really well," Petrella said. "it was very hard to get the passes through their defense."
Though disappointed in the loss, Mathias had the bigger picture in mind after the game.
"We had multiple sophomores handling the ball in pressure situations down the stretch," Mathias said. "That will be a valuable experience as we grow. I think it's starting to come together for us."
S. RANGE: 11-11-15-8-9-54
SOUTH RANGE SCORING: Jordan Youngs 4-1-9, Morgan Czopur 2-5-9, Ashley Sharp 0-5-5, Starla Sharp 2-3-7, Sierra Petrella 7-2-16, Sara Durr 2-3-7, Kendall Syms 0-1-1, Marketta Gabriel 0-0-0. TOTALS: 17, 20-36: 54.
UNITED SCORING: Lauren Beech 2-0-4, Sydney Moats 0-0-0, Mackenzie Gatchel 6-3-18, Shanna Miller 1-2-4, Jenna Plummer 1-3-5, Kassie Chestnut 0-3-3, MacKenzie Firth 3-7-13, Morgan Smith 1-0-2. TOTALS: 14, 18-32: 49.
Three-pointers: United 3 (Gatchel 3).