The word of the night for the West Liberty-Salem girls basketball team was attack, attack, attack.
In the final eight minutes, the Tigers’ strategy finally came to fruition.
West Liberty-Salem sophomore Grace Estes scored a season-high 14 points and senior Gabby Hollar added 12 points, including nine in the fourth quarter, as the Tigers pulled away from the Irish for a 46-35 Ohio Heritage Conference victory on Monday night at Jason Collier Gymnasium.
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“We thought we could get to the basket,” said Tigers coach Dennis McIntosh. “Finally, in the second half, we opened up there. (Hollar and Kelsey Day) hit some shots and got us on a roll.”
West Liberty-Salem outscored the Irish 17-9 in the fourth quarter and hit 9-of-10 free throws to seal the win.
“Offensively, we hit some shots finally and got it where we wanted to be,” McIntosh said.
The Tigers are 11-3 and 9-0 in the OHC North Division and hold a three-game lead over Mechanicsburg (9-6, 7-3) in the division.
Central freshman Mallory Mullen had 14 points and sophomore Abbigail Peterson added 11 for the Irish (12-4, 7-3 OHC South), who saw its seven-game winning streak snapped.
“I’m super proud,” said Irish coach Brandon Peterson. “We’re super young. Getting ready for February, the big thing is we have to grow each game. We knew we were going to be exposed more this game, which is a good thing. We’ve been waiting for that.”
Central led 10-4 early in the first quarter, but the Tigers tied the score on a coast-to-coast buzzer-beating layup by Estes. The sophomore stepped up throughout the game as the Irish face-guarded both Day and Hollar.
“She stepped up and did a lot of nice things tonight,” McIntosh said. “She finished shots and hit some big foul shots in the fourth quarter when it was still close.”
The Irish trailed by three after the third quarter and tied the score at 31 on a 3-pointer by Abbigail Peterson with about five minutes remaining.
That’s when the Hollar and Estes took over. The duo combined for nine straight points to give the Tigers a 42-33 lead. The Irish would score just one basket the rest of the way.
“We knew coming in they were going to play a lot of pressure defense and because of our youth, we didn’t adjust,” Brandon Peterson said.
The Irish host Southeastern on Saturday night in its last game before tournament draw voting begins next week. The draw will be held on Feb. 3.
“We think we’re going to be in that top five or six,” Brandon Peterson said. “I was joking that usually out of 13 teams, we’re 14th. It will be nice to be in the draw this year.”
After starting the season 0-3, West Liberty-Salem has won 11 straight. They play three games in the next five days before a nonconference showdown with Division III sixth-ranked Versailles on Jan. 29. The Tigers have already beaten two state-ranked teams in D-III No. 12 Anna and D-IV No. 1 Fort Loramie.
The victory at Central was another good test for the Tigers, who hope to be battle-tested come February. McIntosh was pleased with his team’s defensive effort against the Irish, the top-scoring team in the OHC at 53.5 points per game.
“(Central) is going to be good over the next few years,” McIntosh said. “They’ve got some nice young ballplayers. We’ve had some battles and it was nice to get one on the road.”