HANOVERTON-The final score may not have shown it, but the United basketball team had to work for its victory over East Palestine on Thursday.
The Bulldogs hung around until the middle of the fourth quarter before the Eagles were finally able to shake free for a 51-34 win.
"We have a lot of new players and we're still trying to work things out," senior point guard Mackenzie Gatchel said. "I feel we are getting better every game, hopefully it will continue."
United improves to 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the Inter-Tri County League upper tier, the Bulldogs fall to 0-4 overall and 0-3 in the ITCL. With four starters departed from last seasons conference and district champion, the Eagles have had to grind things out early in the season while the new faces get acclimated. United came out sluggish in the first quarter, falling behind 17-14 as the Bulldogs got some hot shooting from sophomore guards Hayley and Hannah Hall, who finished with seven and six points respectively and did most of their damage early.
"They had some shooters and defensively we were standing around in the first quarter," Gatchel said "On offense we weren't moving without the ball. We started talking and moving a lot better after that."
With three years of varsity experience Gatchel is the one holdover and she made her presence known throughout the game, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and seven steals, while routinely directing traffic on offense and defense. Mathias believes her experience has accelerated the growth of the younger players.
"Without a doubt she has made our younger players better," Mathias said. "You ask any one of them and they will point to her as the leader on the floor. They respect her, they listen to her and she brings a lot of energy and the rest of the team falls in behind her. That's why we're successful right now."
Behind a ramped-up defense, the Eagles took the lead for good early in the second quarter. United's defensive quickness made life uncomfortable for the Bulldogs, while the Eagles began getting to the foul line regularly on offense. Sophomore guard Lauren Beech complimented Gatchel with 10 points, while forward Jenna Plummer had eight points.
"We woke up after the first quarter," Mathias said. "We sat back on our heels and watched early, and you will have that with a young team. We were able to regroup and take care of business."
The Bulldogs hung within single digits until the fourth quarter in large part due to the rebounding of forwards Courtney Weber and Kelsey McKim. With the guards stifled, the duo gave the Bulldogs plenty of second shot opportunities. Weber finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds while McKim had six points and eight rebounds. First year coach Will Franklin is trying to instill a winning midset and saw the game as a positive.
"We are trying to get stronger mentally and tonight was a great test for us," Franklin said. "Overall we got better. We stayed calm on offense even when they got things going and on defense we did a nice job on their shooters except for a couple of mental breakdowns in the second half."
The Eagles began separateing themselves in the third quarter when Gatchel hit back-to-back threes to make it 38-28. With the Bulldogs still within nine in the fourth, United put the game away at the foul line. The Eagles shot 26 foul shots to the Bulldogs two.
"Nobody is scared of us this year," Mathias said. "We are going to have to earn everything, there are no easy wins on our schedule. East Palestine is much improved from last year and I expected nothing but a battle coming in."
United also won the jayvee game 43-16. Lindsey Donato had 12 points for the Eagles. Sadie Walker had six for the Bulldogs.
EAST PALESTINE: 17-4-9-4-34
EAST PALESTINE SCORING: Hannah Hall 3-2-6, Hayley Hall 3-0-7, Marisa Gorby 1-1-3, Kelsey McKim 3-0-6, Courtney Weber 5-0-10, Abby Fuller 1-0-2, Paden Wallace 0-0-0, Holly Siracuse 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 16, 1-2: 34.
UNITED SCORING: Lauren Beech 5-1-11, Sydney Moats 2-0-4, Mackenzie Gatchel 5-5-17, Jenna Plummer 4-0-8, Kassie Chestnut 0-1-1, Morgan Smith 0-1-1, Kenzie Firth 0-2-2, Megan Amos 0-2-2, Shanna Miller 1-2-4, Jackie Bentfield 0-1-1, Rachel Amos 0-0-0, Lindsey Donato 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 17, 15-26: 51.
Three-point goals: East Palestine 1 (Gorby), United 2 (Gatchel 2).