PICKERINGTON, Ohio — There is a first time for everything.
The Eastern girls basketball team secured its first regional title in school history while also becoming the only Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division program to ever qualify for a state hoops tournament Saturday night following an exhausting 57-56 triumph over host Newark Catholic in a Division IV regional championship matchup at Pickerington High School North in Fairfield County.
Both the Lady Eagles (23-4) and Green Wave (24-3) battled through eight lead changes and five ties throughout the course of the 32-minute affair, and each team held a one-point lead in the final minute of regulation.
Jenna Burdette — a three-time AP Southeast District player of the year selection — sank two free throws with 23.2 seconds remaining to give EHS a slim 57-56 edge, then the junior made that lead hold up by coming away with a late steal to wrap up the historic one-point decision.
Burdette — who has given a verbal commitment to the University of Dayton — finished the night with a game-high 32 points, half of which came during a pivotal 24-10 surge in the opening 10 minutes of the contest.
NCHS went on to outscore Eastern by a sizable 46-33 over the final two-plus quarters of play, but the guests were ultimately able to fall back on that early charge and earn their first trip to Columbus for hoops.
Burdette spoke about the emotions that came with a state berth afterwards, particularly for a pair of teammates — Savannah Hawley and Tori Goble.
“It’s going to be crazy and we are going to love it. We’re excited … I know this is the most excited that I have ever been,” the current alltime leading scorer in program history said. “I’m really happy for our two seniors because I already know how hard it’s going to be without them next year. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about that right now.”
As impressive as Eastern was in the opening stages of the contest, Newark Catholic was equally impressive during certain spans of the final 22 minutes. The Green Wave hit 8-of-9 charity tosses and 12-of-28 field goal attempts in the second half during a 34-28 run.
But in the waning moments, NCHS committed its only turnover of the fourth quarter — and it proved to be a backbreaker.
With EHS leading 57-56 and Burdette at the line with 3.4 seconds remaining, the junior came up empty on the front end of a two-shot foul. After an Eastern timeout, Burdette missed the second attempt — which landed in the hands of Jill Blacksten.
Instinctively, the Central District player of the year started backwards toward the endline before quickly realizing that the shot was missed. An outlet pass was made and another was attempted, but Burdette stepped in to catch the errant throw and wrap up the hard-fought win.
The Lady Eagles — who finished the season ranked 10th in the Division IV AP poll — will face Berlin Hiland (25-3) in the first of two D-4 state semifinals at 1 p.m. Friday at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of the Ohio State University.
The Lady Hawks — who finished second in the final D-4 poll — earned their 13th state berth overall and eighth trip in 10 years by defeating Courtland Maplewood 58-41 in a regional final at Massillon.
Top-ranked Ottoville (27-0) defeated Arcadia by a 52-37 margin at Elida and seventh-ranked Fort Loramie (25-3) beat New Madison Tri-Village 69-46 at Tippecanoe to set up the 3 p.m. semifinal on Friday. The two winners will play at 5:15 p.m. Saturday in the state title game.
That is what now lies ahead for the Lady Eagles, the only program of the four to have never appeared at a state basketball tournament. Hiland is the only program with a state title, as HHS won crowns in 2000, 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Fifth-year EHS coach John Burdette was really trying to enjoy the postgame madness Saturday night, but he also knows that three really solid teams await his troops next week.
“It’s been great looking at the girls and seeing them with their families, all hugging and loving on each other,” the elder Burdette said. “That is honestly better than thinking about who we are playing next.
“It’s great that we won the ball game and we’ll sit back when this is all over and enjoy it, but right now we still have some to work to do. We did accomplish our goal this season by getting to state, but now we have to set some more goals.”
There were three ties and four lead changes in the opening eight minutes of play, and Newark Catholic claimed its biggest lead of the night at 3-0 with 6:48 left in the opening period.
EHS rallied with a 8-5 spurt over the next 2:57 to knot things up at eight, then closed the final three minutes with an 8-0 run to secure a 16-8 cushion after one period of play.
Caroline Wollenburg cut the lead to two possessions with a basket at the 7:06 mark of the second, but Eastern went on another 8-0 run over the next 1:04 — giving the Lady Eagles their biggest cushion of the night at 24-10.
EHS went scoreless over the next 3:55, and the Green Wave capitalized with an 8-0 surge to pull back to within six points with 2:22 left in the half. NCHS trimmed its deficit down to as much as 27-22 with 18.9 seconds remaining, but Burdette hit a short jumper in the lane with three ticks left to secure a 29-22 advantage at the break.
Neither team shot over 40 percent from the field in the first half, as Eastern netted 12-of-30 shot attempts while Newark Catholic sank 8-of-23 field goal tries. EHS also made the only three successful trifectas in the opening 16 minutes of action.
NCHS twice pulled to within four points in the opening four minutes of the third canto, but the Lady Eagles made a 10-2 surge over a 1:39 span to claim their largest second half lead at 42-30 with 2:47 left. Newark Catholic countered with a 10-2 run of its own over the final 2:34 of the stanza, allowing the hosts to pull within 44-40 headed into the finale.
Neither team led by more than four points down the stretch, and the Green Wave completed their noble comeback effort with 4:12 left in regulation after Blacksten canned a three-pointer to give the hosts a 49-48 edge.
Burdette answered with an old-fashioned three-point play at the 3:53 mark, which sparked a small 5-0 run for a 53-49 lead with 3:08 remaining.
NCHS rallied to tie things up at 53- and 55-all, then took its final lead of the night with 52.4 seconds left after Blacksten sank the second of two charity tosses for a 56-55 advantage.
After Burdette reclaimed the lead for the Lady Eagles with 23 ticks left, Newark Catholic tried an isolation play for Blacksten on the low block. The Green Wave ultimately came up short on its game-winner attempt, and Burdette came away with the rebound before being fouled with 3.4 seconds left in regulation — setting up the climactic conclusion.
The Lady Eagles finished the night 20-of-57 from the field for 35 percent, including a 4-of-14 effort from three-point range for 29 percent. The guests committed 12 turnovers and were outrebounded by a 33-28 overall margin, but did claim a small 11-10 edge on the offensive glass.
Burdette scored 20 of her 32 points in the first half, which also included a perfect 9-of-9 effort from the free throw line before her final two tries late. Burdette also had team-highs of eight rebounds, four assists and four steals in the triumph.
Maddie Rigsby was next with 11 points, followed by Jordan Parker with six points and Erin Swatzel with three markers. Katie Keller and Savannah Hawley each chipped in two points, while Tori Goble rounded out the scoring with one marker. EHS was 13-of-18 overall at the charity stripe for 72 percent.
Blacksten paced NCHS with a double-double effort of 18 points and 15 rebounds, followed by Kelly Clapper with 13 points and Ashleigh Parkinson with 10 markers. Caroline Wollenburg was next with eight points, while Jenna Bourne and Caitlyn Andrews rounded out the respective scoring with four and three markers.
The Green Wave hit 20-of-51 shot attempts for 39 percent, including a 2-of-8 effort from behind the arc for 25 percent. The hosts committed 11 turnovers and went 14-of-21 at the charity stripe for 67 percent.
With the win, Eastern earned its fourth-ever state appearance in a girls team sport. The volleyball team advanced to Fairborn in 2011, while the softball program went to the Final Four back in both 1985 and 2001.
The TVC Hocking has also had at least one representative in the D-4 regionals over the last decade, with Eastern’s regional crown being the only successful weekend for the league. The Lady Eagles are also the only current member of the Hocking Division to reach the state level in hoops.
Since Ohio transitioned from Class A, AA and AAA to four divisions in 1988, the Lady Eagles become the only Southeast District program to qualify for state at the Division IV level. The 1987-88 campaign was also the first year that Ohio implemented the three-point line into the high school game.