SALINEVILLE — It might be December but the United and Southern girls basketball teams went at it on Monday like they understood a lot was on the line.
After years of molding their respective programs to get to this point, the Eagles and Indians were both anxious to show that they were capable of setting the tone in the Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference league race.
Thanks to a solid 15-point performance from 6-foot, 2-inch forward junior Taylor Cope, the Eagles outlasted the Indians 35-30 in a tight defensive battle.
United improved to 3-1 and 2-0 in the EOAC, while the Indians (5-1, 1-1) saw a five-game winning streak snapped.
In a game that featured more turnovers than scoring opportunities, Cope had 13 points and was successful in shutting down more inside attacks before she suddenly exited the game after her bumping her head on the floor with 2:41 to go in the third quarter.
“It definitely caught me off guard and I wasn’t really sure what happened, but I was determined to get back in the game because I knew I had to do my part,” Cope said.
She re-entered the game after a spell on the bench and put the team up 31-26 early in the fourth quarter with a bucket which seemed to energize her team.
“I knew we had a pretty big game today,” Cope said. “We talked about it all week. We really wanted the win so we could move on and keep pushing through teams.”
United coach Josh Sigler said it was Cope’s best game of the season.
“She played the most minutes she played all year and she did what we wanted her to do,” Sigler said. “She dominated the middle. She used her will. She used her body a lot. Sure she missed a few easy ones here and there, but she didn’t quit. That just says we have a lot of fight in her.”
Southern was determined to make sure United knew it meant business when it answered the bell with a thrilling first quarter which culminated in the Indians building a 16-9 lead after back-to-back threes from bench players Kya McCulley and Esther Forbes. Olivia Kerns also led the early effort by scoring all six of her points in the first quarter.
The Indians’ bench went wild during that stretch and that had United concerned a bit.
“Just look at the growth in the last five years,” Southern coach Mike Skrinjar said. “We had a gym that was full tonight. The whole culture is changing. It was exciting to see.”
Skrinjar said his team treated the game like it was the Super Bowl.
“To me United is one of the league favorites,” Skrinjar said. “There were a few games they lost last year, but they were a tough, tough team. We treated this game like this is for the league right now. We want to feed off that pressure.”
Southern carried a 22-17 lead into halftime and like she has been for the past two seasons, sophomore guard Ashley Shroades was the engine making the team go.
She finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, but eight of those points were the only scoring the Indians had in the second half.
Cope gave the Eagles their first lead since the first quarter with a bucket with 4:43 to go in the third quarter. Shroades briefly gave the Indians the lead back at 26-25 with 1:06 left in the third quarter but United closed the quarter with four points to go into the fourth with a 29-26 advantage.
Southern never led again.
United is excited to be in a good position early in the league slate. Last season the team felt a bit of a disappointment as COVID altered the way the league championship was awarded. The Eagles had an argument for being the champs, but it didn’t go their way.
“It didn’t work out the way we wanted to or thought it should,” Sigler said. “We snuck up on a lot of teams last year. Teams didn’t expect us to be as good as we were and our girls stayed the course, practiced and did what they were supposed to do. A lot of that spilled over into this year and we have a lot of expectations, but we are still young too — we’ll be playing four sophomores — so there will be growing pains along the way.”
Valley Christian was the first half league champion last year with East Palestine being named the overall champion. Before that Columbiana had won seven straight league titles and was the class of the small schools in the county.
But things might be changing.
¯ United sophomore guard Addyson Blazer was bothered by an ankle injury the entire game and was slow to get up off the floor at several points.
¯ Southern spent almost no time in the locker room at halftime. The Indians warmed up almost immediately and Skrinjar gave a little pep talk on the sidelines before the second half got started.
¯ Kerns also had seven rebounds and 10 blocks.
¯ United won the jayvee game, 51-15. Zoee Smith had 16 points for the Eagles. Gigi Rodgers had eight points for the Indians.
¯ United hosts Wellsville on Thursday. Southern hosts East Palestine on Thursday.
UNITED SCORING: Madison Kibler 2-1-6, Samantha Lippiatt 1-0-2, Addyson Blazer 2-0-4, Colby Burton 0-0-0, Grace Knight 3-0-6, Taylor Cope 7-1-15, Grayson Kidder 1-0-2. TEAM TOTALS: 17, 2-9: 35.
SOUTHERN SCORING: Kya McCulley 1-0-3, Olivia Kerns 3-0-6, Elizabeth Mostella 0-0-0, Esther Forbes 1-0-3, Kennedy Lewis 1-2-4, Ashley Shroades 6-1-14, Josie Stanley 0-0-0, Ronni Mayfield 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 12, 3-7: 30.
Three-point goals: United 1 (Kibler), Southern 3 (McCulley, Forbes, Shroades).