By TED RADICK
LEXINGTON — By the time Liberty-Benton senior guard Savanah Richards fouled out Saturday with two minutes remaining in the game, she’d probably put up close to a half-marathon of running.
Columbus Africentric faceguarded and hounded Richards the entire game, and the Nubians came away with a 56-36 victory in a Division III regional final at Lexington High School.
Africentric (26-0) advances to the OHSAA final four for the fourth consecutive year and will play Berlin Hiland (26-2) in a state semifinal at 1 p.m. Thursday at Value City Arena in Columbus. Waynesville (26-0) and Doylestown Chippewa (26-1) meet in a 3 p.m. semifinal Thursday.
Liberty-Benton finishes its year at 26-2.
Africentric’s game plan was obvious from the outset: Hound Richards on the ball, off the ball, in the backcourt and in the frontcourt.
“You know, she’s a good player,” Africentric coach William McKinley said. “She’s the heart and soul of their team, so we wanted to make her work hard.
“The young lady played extremely hard, and she’s really good, and every single time we took our eyes off of her she made something happen.”
Richards was closely guarded off the ball, and trapped and doubled when she had it. The idea was to not let her get it back once she passed the ball away, and it worked.
“We knew that was probably their game plan coming into tonight,” Liberty-Benton coach Nate Irwin said. “We prepared for it, but you still can’t, in a practice environment, totally prepare for that at game speed.”
Africentric, the defending state champion and the top-ranked Division III team this season in the final Associated Press poll, used its quickness, size and athletic ability to pressure the Eagles, No. 2 in the final AP poll, all game.
“Their length is just something you can’t even mimic in practice,” Irwin said. “We’ve got a second group that’s given us a great look all season long, but, you know. … We worked on some things, and thought we could do some things against them.”
Liberty-Benton got down 6-2 early, then clawed back and trailed just 11-10 after a Sam Shardo 3-pointer late in the first quarter. Richards had four points in the first quarter, L-B had only two turnovers and the Eagles were in the thick of it.
“That first quarter, I had to kind of reinforce to our young ladies that, listen, we have to guard No. 10 (Richards),” McKinley said. “We can’t take a break. So, they kind of buckled down on her the remainder of the game.”
Liberty-Benton had eight turnovers in the second quarter, was outscored 16-3 and went into halftime down 29-13.
“We knew as (Richards) goes, that’s how their team goes,” said Africentric’s Jordan Horston, a Tennessee commit who led all scorers with 16 points and had four blocks, five assists and four steals. “I don’t know if we ever really wore her out, but our goal was to make her work and work.”
Three free throws from Richards were L-B’s only points in the second quarter. The Eagles missed all eight field-goal attempts in the frame.
“Give them credit, they guard extremely hard,” Irwin said. “There’s a lot of teams with talent like that, that don’t always guard hard. They’re willing to defend, and I think that’s what puts them over the top.
“It makes them a very special basketball team. Any open looks we got tonight, it was earned. They didn’t give us any easy ones.”
Liberty-Benton played fairly even with Africentric after the half, but the early deficit was too much to overcome. Richards finished with nine points, five assists and six rebounds.
“Their pressure and intensity, they came out so hard,” Richards said. “We came out hard, too, but they’re a great team.
“There’s really nothing we could have done differently. It was all we could do.”
Shardo hit four 3-pointers and led the Eagles with 12 points. Alissa Rhodes had nine points and five rebounds.
“We knew they were going to be taller, stronger and faster,” Richards said. “Mentally, I think we were just as strong if not stronger. We’ve been through a lot of things, played in a lot of tough games. Obviously, that didn’t win us the game today, but I’m proud of these girls.”
Richards said Africentric’s strategy, especially the Nubians’ pressure on her off the basketball, was more mentally than physically taxing.
“It was tough,” she said. “I think I’m the one most comfortable with the ball, so not having it puts a lot of pressure on other people. I like to have the ball in my hands to help the team out, and today they made it really hard.
“So, props to them.”
Arianna Smith had 10 points and five rebounds for Africentric, and Maliyah Johnson grabbed a game-best 10 rebounds and scored six points. The Nubians had a 46-27 edge in rebounds and grabbed 25 offensive boards.
“I would have loved to see us convert a few more of those, but just getting that possession back helps us out,” McKinley said. “It gives us a chance to have another crack at it.”
Richards, who will play next year at Tiffin University, leaves with a legacy as one of L-B’s most complete players.
“Savanah played her heart out. She’s done that for us for four years. It’s more than 100 games she’s started for us over the course of her career,” Irwin said.
“Savanah continued to attack, continued to battle and did exactly what we needed her to do. She’s been a leader for us. She didn’t quit, our girls didn’t quit. That’s what I wanted from them, to finish the game hard no matter what the score was.”
Richards will join former L-B teammate Jensen Hiegel at Tiffin.
“I think one of the players who paved the way for me is Jensen,” Richards said. “I think my game is kind of based off of hers. If you see us play, we’re really similar. My freshman year, she took me under her wing. I think I did the same with some of the girls here and I hope they can take my place here next year.”
Shardo 4-12 0-0 12, Ward 0-1 0-0 0, Richards 3-14 3-5 9, Elseser 1-4 0-0 2, Rhodess 3-4 1-1 9, Reynolds 0-2 0-0 0, Peplinski 0-1 0-0 0, Shepherd 1-5 2-2 4. TOTALS: 12-43 6-8 — 36
COLUMBUS AFRICENTRIC (26-0)
Thornton 2-7 0-0 4, Wheat 0-2 0-0 0, Ransom 0-1 0-0 0, Smith 4-9 1-2 10, Cook 0-2 0-0 0, Murphy 1-1 0-0 2, Brock 1-1 0-2 3, Johnson 2-7 2-2 6, Horston 5-12 5-7 16, Walker 3-7 1-2 7, Smith 4-12 0-0 8. TOTALS: 22-61 9-15 — 56.
Liberty-Benton 10 3 10 13 — 36
Columbus Africentric 13 16 16 11 — 56
3-POINT GOALS: Liberty-Benton 6-21 (Shardo 4-12, Rhodes 2-2, Richards 0-4, Reynolds 0-2, Ward 0-1). Columbus Africentric 3-12 (Smith 1-1, Brock 1-1, Horston 1-5, Smith 0-4, Thornton 0-1).
REBOUNDS: Liberty-Benton 27 (Richards 6, Elseser & Rhodes 5); Columbus Africentric 46 (Johnson 10, Walker 6). ASSISTS: Liberty-Benton 6 (Richards 5); Columbus Africentric 15 (Horston 5). STEALS: Liberty-Benton 3 (Shepherd 2); Columbus Africentric 8 (Horston 4). BLOCKS: Liberty-Benton 2 (Elseser & Shepherd); Columbus Africentric 8 (Horston & Walker 4).
TURNOVERS: Liberty-Benton 16, Columbus Africentric 8.