BIDWELL, Ohio — Bit by bit, River Valley kept getting closer on Monday night.
Unfortunately for the host Lady Raiders, Laura Manderick made sure the distance was safe enough.
Spearheaded by Manderick amassing a game-high 28 points, the Athens Bulldogs never trailed — and fended off the hard-charging Lady Raiders 53-49 for a Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division girls basketball win.
Manderick made the difference from beginning to end on Monday, making three first-quarter three-pointers en route to the Bulldogs building their largest lead at 15-4.
In the closing canto, Manderick made two two-pointers to keep Athens ahead by three — then made three consecutive free throws in a span of 11 seconds to maintain the Bulldogs’ three-point edge (52-49) with only 17 seconds remaining.
After River Valley’s Erin Jackson missed the game-tying three-point attempt, the Bulldogs collared the rebound — and Emma Harter hit the first of the double-bonus free-throw situation with 5.3 ticks to play.
Just how close were the Raiders to completing a season sweep of Athens?
Despite three double-digit deficits (12-2, 15-4 and 17-7), River Valley battled to within one point (37-36, 39-38, 41-40 and 50-49) four times in the final eight minutes and 12 seconds.
A pair of Savannah Reese field goals got the Lady Raiders to within 49-47 and 50-49 in the final 20 seconds — but River Valley could never get that one more made free throw, one more basket or one more needed defensive stop.
“We just never got over that hump,” said River Valley coach Stephen Roderick. “All the girls did what I asked and played hard, and we played with more pressure and more intensity than we played with before. As far as playing basketball, we did a lot of the right things. It was a good hard-fought ballgame, but we’re still young and we just have to get better.”
With the loss, the Lady Raiders fell to 2-15 —and 2-6 in the TVC-Ohio.
River Valley defeated Athens 42-35 back on Dec. 12 — which was also in fact the Silver and Black’s last victory.
Monday’s setback marked the Lady Raiders’ 11th in a row, as Athens improved to 4-13 — and 1-6 in the league.
In many of River Valley’s losses, it has started out slow — and did so again against Athens.
Trailing 3-0, Maggie Campbell’s basket finally got the Raiders on the scoreboard —but three minutes and 45 seconds had already elapsed.
Manderick made her three threes over the next two minutes, and suddenly the Raider deficit expanded to 12-2 at the two-minute mark.
River Valley’s only other points of the entire first period were a Jackson basket at the 1:45 point — and a bucket by Jessica Steele with 32 seconds to play.
“We came out flat and let them do some things that we shouldn’t have. We got ourselves in a situation where we were clawing back the whole time,” said Roderick. “We had some mental lapses. We had those few mental breakdowns because the game was so intense and so fast-paced.”
And, Manderick made the Lady Raiders pay for those lapses.
She then scored seven second-period points, including three foul shots with 29 seconds remaining — after she drew a foul on another three-point attempt.
Manderick mustered her 28 points on nine total field goals and 6-of-8 free throws, including four treys.
“We had our best defender, Erin Jackson, guarding her (Manderick) most of the game,” said Roderick. “When she hit those threes, or at least two of them, those were mental lapses off talking screens and things of that nature.”
But the Lady Raiders managed to stay within striking distance, trailing anywhere from two to 10 points over the middle two quarters.
Finally, a Jackson jumper with a dozen seconds remaining in the third got them to within one (37-36) — before baskets by Jackson (39-38) and Reese (41-40 and 50-49) maintained that margin in the fourth.
Athens’ advantage never swelled to double digits in the final 21 minutes —and its fourth-quarter cushion never got above six at 47-41.
Kaylie Stewart, who followed Manderick with 11 points, scored three third-quarter field goals and meshed 5-of-8 free throws.
She sank four in a row in the fourth frame for the Bulldogs’ six-point (47-41) bulge.
Harter hit 5-of-6 from the stripe including 3-of-4 in the fourth, as Athens made more free throws (17) than the Lady Raiders even attempted (15).
Lauren Abdella added three field goals for six points, as Lilly Mills with a first-quarter bucket and Sami Russell with a first-period foul shot rounded out the Green and Gold.
All seven Lady Raiders which played scored at least one basket, as Jackson led the way with six field goals and 2-of-2 free throws for 14 points.
Jaden Neal netted two triples towards eight points, as Beth Gillman — on a two, a three and 2-of-5 foul shots —scored seven.
Reese — with three field goals — and Campbell and Steele, with two field goals and 2-of-4 free throws, each scored six.
Cierra Roberts, with a third-quarter basket, rounded out the Lady Raiders.
Roderick praised his squad for its fight, and chalked up Monday’s close contest as yet another learning lesson.
“I’m so proud of the girls for just fighting,” said Roderick. “After a long season, we could have just given up, and this game could have ended up being a double-digit loss. We haven’t been in many of these close games, and it takes experience. Athens has probably played in a few games like this, but our girls really haven’t.”
The Lady Raiders return to TVC-Ohio action on Thursday — when they travel to league-leader Alexander.
Paul Boggs can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2106