Defense carries Eastbrook to first Grant Four title in five years

Throughout his nine-year career at the helm of the Eastbrook girls basketball program, Jeff Liddick’s philosophy has remained the same. 

Success on the hardwood starts with defense.

The Panthers have taken pride in that facet of their game throughout the 2020-2021 season, and it was the major factor in their 50-27 triumph over Oak Hill Wednesday night in the Grant Four Championship — their first county tournament victory in five years

After a closely contested first half, the Panthers dominated the final two quarters, holding the Golden Eagles to just nine points, one in the fourth quarter, and three total field goals, all of which came in the third stanza. 

“About halfway through the third there, I think we started putting things together and being more consistent with that defensive effort,” Liddick said. “I heard a lot of girls talking. I heard a lot of girls yelling, ‘Help!’ I heard a lot of girls yelling, “Screen!” I saw block outs. I have to give the girls all the credit for stepping up to the challenge that we set forth for them. To hold them to nine points in a half is pretty amazing.” 

As the second half progressed, the Panthers ramped up their defensive intensity, keeping the Oak Hill offense grounded and forcing the Golden Eagles into a plethora of mistakes, which allowed them to pull away.   

However, the Golden Eagles did not do themselves any favors by turning the ball over 13 times in the second half and 21 times overall, many of which were unforced. 

“I thought they played very lethargic,” Oak Hill Head Coach Clay Bolser said. “We had several [players] that went through the motion at times, and for me, as a coach, in any situation, that is unacceptable. Those are things I haven’t had to say very often about this basketball team, but I was disappointed in our effort tonight. The majority of those turnovers didn’t have anything to do with their pressure, it had to do with being lulled to sleep, for lack of a better term. We did not have the mental fortitude to push through.”

The first quarter was tightly contested, with neither team leading by more than two possessions in the opening eight minutes. Eastbrook opened the scoring with a pair of buckets in the paint from Kristin Goff, and Carlee Biddle answered with four points of her own to twice but Oak Hill ahead by two. 

However, freshman Olivia Howell gave the Panthers the lead back for good in the final 23 seconds, converting on a three-point play to make it a 9-8 Eastbrook advantage after one. 

The Panthers used a 10-0 run in the first four minutes of the second quarter to build a 19-8 lead, which included a pair of threes from freshman shooting guard Sophia Morrison, a jumper from Goff, and a score off a steal from Howell. 

However, the Golden Eagles pushed back, ending the first half on a 10-4 run, including a three at the buzzer from Audrey Leak, to cut Eastbrook’s advantage to 23-18. 

Feeling that his team suffered a few defensive lapses and breakdowns late in the first half, Liddick challenged them to go all out on the defensive end on every possession.

And the message was heard loud and clear. 

“I felt like the execution and the effort was inconsistent,” Liddick said. “I challenged them…to go out on both ends of the court, make them hate to guard you, and then, when you’re on the defensive end, make them hate being guarded. I thought we did a great job of that in the second half.” 

A contributing factor to the Panthers’ staunch defensive play was the performance of junior Lily McLaughlin. Primarily a JV player, McLaughlin earned varsity minutes after a stellar performance in the JV Grant Four Championship, in which she scored 30 of the Panthers’ 50 points. 

From the moment she stepped on the court, the energy level was immediately raised. The Panthers began to execute better, and their defensive play drastically improved. Though she only scored three points, she also came away with five rebounds, along with several steals in crucial situations. 

“We’ve been wanting Lily to do that all season long,” Liddick said. “We knew she was capable of giving us minutes like that at the varsity level all season long. I told her before the game, ‘You are going to get an opportunity here. I want you to play with the same confidence and the same intensity that you played with in the JV championship.’ When she came in, the bench was super excited for her. Her teammates on the floor fed off of that, and she gave us a big lift.” 

Eastbrook built a 38-26 lead after the third quarter and outscored the Golden Eagles 12-1 in the final frame to secure the victory. 

Morrison, after scoring just nine points in the Panthers’ semi-final against Mississinewa, put together a strong performance against Oak Hill, scoring 16 points, including all of Eastbrook’s three-point attempts. 

“Tonight, Oak Hill came out with [Joy] McDivitt all over her, and she didn’t show any panic. She didn’t get panicked at all,” Liddick said. “She let the game come to her, and that’s why you see the difference in the scoring.” 

Howell finished the game with seven points and five rebounds, while Goff, Johwen McKim, and Sehdah McKim each added six points. 

For Oak Hill, Biddle led the way with seven points, while Treniti Thurman and Joy McDivitt each scored five. 

With their victory on Wednesday, the Panthers accomplished one of their major goals. 

Now, the work continues. 

“If we can find some consistency, we will be pretty tough going into tournament time,” Liddick said. “Hopefully, that’s the point we get to here over the next four to four and a half weeks.” 

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