With its season on the line, St. Paul had eight minutes to find a way to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
The solution wasn't hard. Elise Nickoli simply stole the game.
St. Paul entered the fourth quarter of its Division IV sectional semifinal against Seneca East at Columbian trailing 37-32.
PHOTO BY TONY MALUSO
Seneca East’s Brittany?Brookes (20) and Amber Enders trap Norwalk St. Paul’s Caitlin Good during Tuesday’s sectional final in Tiffin.
PHOTO BY TONY MALUSO
Seneca East’s Seina Adachi (right) shoots over St. Paul’s Ashley Painley during Tuesday’s sectional semifinal in Tiffin.
To get the offense going, Nickoli sparked things on the defensive end. With five minutes to go, a Nickoli steal started a fastbreak and Lydia Ott finished with a layup. The deficit was gone and the Flyers never trailed again, holding off Seneca East for a 50-47 victory.
St. Paul coach Vicky Mahl said the defense has been a cornerstone of her team.
"That's one thing we pride ourselves on is our defense," she said. "We got a little lapse in that right there in the third quarter at the beginning. But, that's one thing they pride themselves on. Bella (Stoll) does a very good job. I got a very good front two in Bella and Elise. Then you add Lydia to that and you put the down people in Emily (Chandler) and Lauren (Lukasko) and Elyse Roth and, they work very well together.
"You got speed up top with a little bit of reaction time. They're very ball-oriented. I guess they see the ball, that's what they want. Sometimes I have trouble with fouls for the simple fact that I can't get them to keep hands up. 'Cause they're like 'We want the ball.' I'm like 'I don't need the ball, I just need you to stop them.'"
St. Paul did stop Seneca East, holding the Tigers to 3-for-14 shooting in the fourth. But whether Mahl needed the ball or not, Nickoli got it for her. The Flyer senior had four steals in the fourth quarter alone and each one turned into points. Nickoli got a steal and was fouled going for a layup with 1:45 to go. After splitting the foul shots, St. Paul held a 48-43 edge.
Seneca East tried to rally, getting baskets from Seina Adachi and Hannah Hahler to bring the Tigers within one with 1:05 to play.
But, Stoll countered with a basket on the other end and a Seneca East turnover followed. St. Paul's struggles at the foul line - the Flyers were 4 for 14 from the line in the fourth quarter - gave Seneca East a chance.
But two late chances at 3-pointers, including one from halfcourt at the buzzer, fell off the mark and the Flyers held on to the win.
"We had some (bad) turnovers," Seneca East coach Dave Stallings said. "We didn't maintain our composure. You go on an 18-4 run on a team, and then don't play the fourth quarter, chances are you're going to lose."
The entire game was a series of pendulum swings until the final swing cut the rope off Seneca East's season.
The team exchanged shots in the first quarter until Adachi got two late baskets to life Seneca East to a 14-13 lead after the first.
But the second quarter was entirely St. Paul. The Flyer defense held Seneca East to 2-for-16 shooting from the field in the quarter, and Stoll sparked the offense with seven in the period as St. Paul built a 26-19 halftime lead. Stoll had 12 of her team-high 16 points in the first half.
Seneca East, though, turned things in its favor coming out of the locker rooms. The first four minutes of the third quarter saw the Tigers score the first 11 points of the half. Hahler opened things up with a basket, Adachi followed with two foul shots and a 3-pointer, then Brittany Brookes scored the team's next nine. Paige Reichert hit a basket to finish off an 18-4 run that had Seneca East up seven, though St. Paul was able to get a bucket to narrow the gap to five to start the fourth.
"We ran," Stallings said of how his team turned the game around. "That's what we've been telling the girls all year we've been telling them that since last summer when we played in the summer league. People can't stop us, just run. We ran; we got layups. Our post players were hustling down the floor. That's what was working. Then all of a sudden we got away from that."
And when they got away from it, St. Paul took advantage.
"We played really well there at the end of the second (quarter), and they came out and had a little lapse in the third quarter," Mahl said. "Told the kids I was proud of them. They fought back. They don't give up and that's what a coach wants from their team. Granted, you don't want to have to fight back every game, but when they do get down, they don't give up."
Adachi led Seneca East (11-12) with 22 points. Brookes backed her with 11 and Hahler grabbed 15 rebounds.
St. Paul (15-7) will be back at Columbian Saturday to play New Riegel in the first game of a sectional final doubleheader.