By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Most of us have heard the host of a game show or the off-stage announcer intone, "Thanks for playing. For your parting gift …"
In the school's final official basketball act after about 3-1⁄2 decades in the Carroll-Livingston Activities Association, Meadville High's boys' basketball team wasn't handed anything Saturday night, but it did earn a lot.
The Eagles hauled home both the conference's regular-season and league tournament championship trophies after outlasting a game Southwest Livingston Wildcats club, 57-41. For the Meadville boys, it was their fourth-straight championship in the tourney and seventh in its approximately-35-years stay.
But for a lapse in the last couple of minutes of regulation time of their title game, MHS' girls would have made it a clean sweep by the soon-to-be ex-members of the conference. However, they were victimized by a top-seeded team which seemed to save its best for when its back was to the wall in the tourney.
Double-overtime winners in the semifinals two nights before, Norborne's Lady Pirates overcame a 6-points deficit in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter Saturday night to send their championship contest with the Meadville Lady Eagles to overtime. There, the Lady Pirates won the clash between the CLAA's regular-season co-champions by a 49-46 count.
"I'm just proud of them," NHS head coach Michael Lock commented. "Anybody that was at our semifinal game, probably thought we had that lost and, if you were here tonight, with about two minutes left – I think we were down six… I told the girls afterward it was like they refused to lose. They just found a way to get it done."
The crown Norborne won was its first in either gender division of the tournament since it and Hardin-Central joined the CLAA six years ago following the disbanding of the Central River Conference. Norborne actually was a charter member of the CLAA back in the early 1950s, but did not win a title then.
As it claimed its first, Meadville secured its 14th (seven boys, seven girls) and last before returning to where it came to the league from – the Tri-County Conference.
The schools in that loop are a bit larger in enrollment than many of the CLAA schools and, in part, are able to support the same range and caliber of athletics programs that Meadville does. That's something several CLAA schools with dwindling enrollments are finding increasingly-difficult to do, year in and year out.
"It is a bittersweet ending for us," admitted Meadville boys head coach Darren Smith. "I have made a lot of great friends and been able to coach against these guys for several years.
"We won't be able to come back and defend our championship next year and this is something I think any team would want to do."
Page 2 of 4 - (G) Norborne 49, Meadville 46, ot
That the girls' game would go down to the wire – and perhaps beyond – would not have surprised any knowledgeable observers of the CLAA this season or the tournament last week.
Since the two squads finished as regular-season co-champions – Norborne got the tourney's top seeding because it won head-to-head early in the year, they figured to be able to punch and counterpunch as the game unfolded.
Even Norborne's at-the-brink comeback wasn't really that surprising, not after it had needed to score late in regulation time and a first overtime before claiming its semifinals victory over Hardin-Central two nights before.
What may have been the ultimate deciding factor may have come far earlier in the game than Norborne's late push or overtime control.
The storm clouds which eventually consumed Meadville began building when center Haley Fitzpatrick picked up two avoidable fouls in the first half and Halee Neal also was whistled twice in the relatively-early going.
Neal only picked up one more the rest of the way, but Fitzpatrick – who returned with a vengeance in the second half to ring up 15 points – fouled out late in regulation time on a slight bump call defending in the low post she and others felt was borderline.
Once Fitzpatrick's offensive and defensive capabilities were lost for keeps, Norborne capitalized with its 6'1" All-State center and tournament most valuable player, Cheyenne Baxter.
On the play in which Fitzpatrick fouled out as C. Baxter caught an entry pass at the right block, the NHS stalwart converted both free throws to trim the Lady Pirates' deficit to 42-38.
On the next Norborne possession, after Meadville's Erin Shiflett had hit a free throw for her 12th of 15 points, the Lady Pirates got Devanne McCoy free outside the arc and she hit her second deep ball of the fourth stanza from about 22 or 23 feet to the right of the key to carve the lead to a single tally.
Meadville could not score, but it also held Norborne off the board and got possession as the ball went out of bounds with 13 seconds remaining in regulation time.
However, with Norborne having earlier altered its usual alignment when it presses to make it tougher for usually-sure-handed Meadville to have a clear throw-in, the in-bounds attempt was intercepted and Norborne got the ball back inside to C. Baxter, who was fouled with just over eight seconds to go.
"We switched and put Cheyenne over the ball on a couple of in-bounds plays, which they had to throw (the ball higher) and we did get a couple of key steals late and I think that was the difference," recalled Lock
C. Baxter's first try at tying the game missed, but the second was true and the game was even.
Page 3 of 4 - Meadville tried set up a shot, but couldn't and finally called timeout with just over a second left. However, a hurried attempt off the in-bounds pass wasn't close and overtime ensued.
"We play some teams that we can pressure the ball and get some turnovers, but Meadville doesn't really turn the ball over much," Lock remarked after the game, acknowledging not only how tough he knew the game would be, but the added difficulty of having to come from behind.
Without Fitzpatrick to sturdily play behind C. Baxter while smaller MHS players would collapse quickly around the NHS center whenever the ball would be entered, Norborne's players realized how to approach the extra time. It was the same way they'd done it the final couple of minutes of regulation time – look to their star down low.
"It helped when Fitzpatrick fouled out because we kept feeding 'Chey,' kept feeding 'Chey,'" Lock admitted. "Our kids are smart and they know where the ball needs to go. I really wasn't saying much about that, but they knew where it needed to go, so it's a lot of credit to them and their basketball savvy."
The Norborne center quickly converted on her first opportunity in overtime, spinning quickly to the baseline after taking a pass in the right low post and banking home about a 5-foot jumper within the first half-minute. Meadville would not catch up.
C. Baxter hit again after a Meadville free throw by Sara Van Dyke and Kaylea Wood, whose free throw with two seconds left in the second overtime had won NHS' semifinal game, made three of four at the line for her club's last three tallies. With three seconds to go in the overtime and her team up by one after Shiflett's fourth trey of the game, Wood assured her team of at least a second overtime by hitting two free throws.
The in-bounds pass Meadville hoped would lead to a miracle 3-pointer was picked off and Norborne had the crown.
Statistically, tourney MVP C. Baxter was nearly unstoppable after halftime, scoring 20 of her game-high 27 points following intermission. With three treys, McCoy added nine points.
Meadville, which had all except one of its seven first-half field goals come from outside the arc – and the one that wasn't came on a weak-side putback of a missed trey, was led by Fitzpatrick's 16 points – all after halftime – and Shiflett's 15. Emilee Cowan matched NHS' McCoy in scoring nine on three trifectas.
"From here on out, there are going to be big-pressure games, just like this one," the Norborne coach stated in assessing how the experiences of last Thursday and Saturday will factor into his team's readiness for district tournament play, which starts next week.
If the Lady Pirates can claim the district title on their home floor, their first opponent in state tournament play could be the very club they vanquished with great difficulty Saturday.
Page 4 of 4 - "We very well could see this team down the road" in the first round of Class 1 state tournament play, but "if we don't do a few things better offensively, we're not going to get out of our district. We've got to play a little better offensively, but I won't change anything we're doing defensively."
(B) Meadville 57, Southwest Livingston 41
Although the final margin of the boys' championship game was in the mid-teens and was there from the late stages of the third period on, the 25-1 champion Eagles' task was not made easy by the Ludlow-based Wildcats (16-5).
Meadville came out cold offensively, partially due to pesky, hustling Southwest Livingston defense, and the Wildcats made some early shooting hay.
All-tourney pick Mason Mehrhoff got SLHS the game's first points with a deuce and Ethan Crowe, who played virtually start to finish even though he'd spent an earlier part of his day winning a Class 1 district wrestling title, hit in the paint for a 4-0 lead. Mehrhoff then drained a 3-ball and another deuce and the Wildcats led 9-0 with 2:45 to go in the first period.
It stayed there for about a minute, but a quick trios of MHS 3s – the first two by reserve guard Dalton Palmer and one by tourney MVP Derek Smith – had the game tied within 90 seconds.
De. Smith's second triple put his team in front for the first time at 17-16 with just over 31⁄2 minutes to go in the first half, but the Wildcats didn't yield willingly, retaking the lead a minute later on Cole Upton's trey. Finally, another De. Smith 3-ball with 40 seconds remaining in the half gave Meadville the lead for keeps at 22-21.
"I thought our kids played with great composure," coach Da. Smith commented. "We didn't get rattled when they came out and were ahead 9-0 in the first quarter. Dalton gave us a huge lift off the bench in the first and Derek really carried us in the second and third quarter and Cade Shiflett gave us a boost in the third with consecutive 3s."
De. Smith finished with 30 points, while Mehrhoff's 17 and Crowe's 11 paced Southwest Livingston.