AUSTINTOWN - After Poland Lady Bulldogs forward Abbie Frank sunk a 3-pointer in the waning moments of the first quarter to give her team a 13-8 lead, West Branch head coach Walt DeShields had a simple message for his team - defense.
"We talked in the huddle and said we had to pick up the defensive intensity," he said.
West Branch did just that holding the Lady Bulldogs to only five second quarter points and eventually pulling away for a 44-36 win in the Division II district semi-final at Austintown-Fitch High School.
"In the first quarter we didn't pass the ball real well," DeShields. "Poland was passing well and they hit some open shots. But Pavin Heath just stepped up and kept us in the game."
West Branch's freshman sensation followed a Brittany Bryte 3-pointer with a two-point bucket of her own giving West Branch the lead at 20-18 going into halftime.
When play resumed, Heath countered a Poland bucket with a 3-pointer to keep West Branch in front.
Heath finished the night with a team-high 19 points, 12 by way of 3-pointer, and six rebounds.
From there, according to DeShields, it came down to will.
"Our seniors had big will tonight," he said. "They made some big plays to keep Poland out of it and give us a comfortable lead."
After a Rebekah Zets 3-pointer, West Branch extended the lead to 35-26 through 24 minutes of play.
Poland came right back and started the final frame on an 8-0 run cutting the lead to one after a Frank jumper and a Rachel Robertson 3-pointer.
It looked for a moment the Lady Bulldogs had snatched the game's momentum.
That was until Heath stepped in again with back-to-back buckets for the Warriors. Niki Carlton answered a Poland free throw with a lay-up, and West Branch wouldn't let Poland get closer than five for the remainder of the game.
"Credit to Poland, they came right back at us in the fourth," DeSheilds said. "But these girls are like family now. They think they're a band of sisters and they're fighting for each other out on the floor."
Zets finished with two 3-pointers and eight points. Brittany Bryte tallied seven points, while Kelsey Loiselle and Melinda Trimmer both had four.
Frank had a team-high 14 points and five rebounds for Poland.
Now West Branch finds itself in the same situation as last season in the district final. What they don't want is a repeat of that contest - a 42-25 loss to Struthers.
DeShields knows in order to get over the final hurdle and move on to regionals, it's going to take a similar if not better effort than Thursday. West Branch moves on for a rematch with Canfield at 1 p.m. The Lady Warriors beat the Lady Cardinals in regular season action 47-45 in Beloit.
But for Saturday's match-up, DeShields knows all bets are off.
"They are really talented," he said. "We're going to have our hands full."
E-mail B.J. Lisko at firstname.lastname@example.org
WEST BRANCH: 8 12 15 9 - 44
POLAND: 13 5 8 10 - 36
WEST BRANCH SCORING: Brittany Bryte 2-2-7, Melinda Trimmer 1-2-4, Kelsey Loiselle 1-2-4, Rebekah Zets 2-2-8, Niki Carlton 1-0-2, Pavin Heath 7-1-19. TEAM TOTALS: 14, 9-17, 44.
POLAND SCORING: Aleah Hughes 2-1-5, Abby Brenoel 3-0-7, Marua Bobby 5-0-10, Abbie Frank 5-1-14. TEAM TOTALS: 15, 2-4, 36.
THREE POINTERS: West Branch 7 (Heath 4, Zets 2, Bryte), Poland 4 (Frank 3, Brenoel).