By BRANDON SHRIDER
MILLBURY — Caitlin Elseser was benched coming out of halftime of Liberty-Benton’s district semifinal against Eastwood on Thursday.
“She’s been a different player since then,” Eagles coach Nate Irwin said Saturday.
With Archbold featuring just one player taller than 5-foot-10, the 6-3 sophomore rushed a few shots early and had hit 1 of 5 shots by halftime.
Elseser became the best player on the floor in the second half.
She scored 16 of her 18 points in the final 16 minutes without missing a shot and swatted seven Bluestreak shots away while spearheading a suffocating L-B defense en route to a 58-38 win to claim a Division III district title.
“When she plays like that we can be pretty tough to beat,” Irwin said.
“It revolves around her. Our defense is good because of her. It’s a team game and we’ve got a lot of players that contribute into this, but when she plays like that, we can be a special team.
“Today was just at another level.”
Liberty-Benton improved to 25-1 and nabbed a district title for the second straight season.
The Eagles advance to play Ottawa-Glandorf (23-2) in a regional semifinal at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday at Ohio Northern University. O-G gave Liberty-Benton its only loss of the season, 58-53, on Dec. 30.
Archbold ended its tournament run at 22-4.
Savanah Richards, the Blanchard Valley Conference Player of the Year, was the one who got the Eagles’ offense settled in against an intense defense from Archbold.
After the Eagles committed a host of early turnovers, the junior guard scored nine of L-B’s first 13 points, including a pair of and-one finishes and capped it off with a corner 3-pointer to put the Eagles ahead 13-5.
The 3-pointer also gave her 1,000 career points. Richards scored 18 points and added team highs of 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Schy Shepherd, who finished with 11 points and two steals, capped what became a 12-0 run, with a baseline layup.
“Savanah’s a gamer,” Irwin said. “And she’s been in these situations before, both on the soccer field and on a basketball court. She was fortunate to play in a lot of big games at a young age. I don’t worry about her in games like this.”
Two of those big games have come against Archbold in the last calendar year.
Last season’s regional semifinal, which resulted in a two-point overtime loss to the Bluestreaks, was on the minds of players coming into Saturday’s game. But Richards and a few other players on the basketball team, beat Archbold’s previously unbeaten soccer team to advance to state last fall.
“The whole team, we were really thinking about last year’s game. Even one of our teammates was watching it before we even got on the bus,” Richards said.
“And just thinking the feeling of losing in overtime and missing the shot, it was a horrible feeling. Carrying it over here, was just awesome to beat them by this much after last year.”
Richards was referencing to last seasons’s overtime 3-point attempt, which rattled on the rim before bouncing out as the final buzzer sounded.
There was no need for a buzzer-beater on Saturday.
Once L-B took a 15-5 lead fueled by its 12-0 run, Archbold got within 17-12 early in the second quarter. But with 3:12 left in the first half, Richards knocked down another shot — while going 4 for 4 in the half — to put L-B ahead by nine. After a pair of scoreless minutes, Sammy Shardo then found Alexa Lenhart on a drive-and-kick for a 3-pointer and an 11-point margin.
The Bluestreaks never cut the deficit to single digits from that point forward as Elseser scored seven of L-B’s first nine points out of the break.
“When you play Archbold there’s going to be turnovers. We told our girls it’s not always going to look pretty, it’s not going to be perfect by any means,” Irwin said.
“You gotta play with the lead. We were fortunate to have that eight to 12-point lead for quite a while. They had to speed up their offense a little bit, probably take some quicker shots than they wanted to and allowed our defense to relax and get stops.”
The Eagles’ defense, which swarms the ball at an unrelenting pace, generated 13 turnovers and forced Archbold’s offense to shoot a miserable 25.4 percent (15 of 59) from the field.
The effort included holding the 5-3 Kamryn Hostetler — the Bluestreaks go-to player, a first-team Northwest Ohio Athletic League selection, and the player who scored the go-ahead basket in last season’s regional semifinal — without a second-half point and eight for the game.
Andi Peterson led the way with 10 points and 6-foot junior Lily Krieger battled foul trouble and finished with six points and four rebounds.
“We’ve got some extremely quick and talented guards on the perimeter that can hound and harass you. We’ve got a senior in Alexa Lenhart who only averages about six points a game, but on the court it’s like she’s a 15- to 20-point scorer because the difference she makes on both ends of the floor, especially defensively,” Irwin said of his senior guard who led the BVC with 89 steals.
“As a coaching staff, those are the sort of players you need to be good and beat good teams like Archbold. The things that the Alexa Lenhart’s of the world do, definitely don’t go unnoticed.”
Shardo added a steal and two blocks for L-B.
A. Peterson 4-0–10, Hostetler 3-1–8, E. Peterson 3-0–6, Krieger 2-2–6, Nafziger 2-0–6, Wyse 1-0–2. TOTALS: 15-59 3-4 — 38.
Richards 6-5–18, Elseser 8-2–18, Shepherd 5-1–11, Lenhart 2-0–5, Shardo 0-2–2, Rhodes 1-0–2, Kin 0-2–2. TOTALS: 22-38 12-20 — 58.
Archbold 9 6 13 10- — 38
Liberty-Benton 15 11 14 18 — 58
3-POINT GOALS: Archbold 5-13 (A. Peterson & Nafziger 2, Hostetler 1); Liberty-Benton 2-12 (Richards & Lenhart 1).
REBOUNDS: Archbold 27 (E. Peterson 5); Liberty-Benton 31 (Richards 10).
TURNOVERS: Archbold 13, Liberty-Benton 14.
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