Top-ranked MND outlasts Fairmont in Division I regional final

Fairmont played the team Saturday that’s supposed to win the Division I girls basketball state tournament. Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame is the defending and seven-time state champion, unbeaten, ranked No. 1 in Ohio and ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation.

Losing to a team like that, however, would be no consolation for the Firebirds. They came out firing at Princeton High School in the regional final and built an 11-point lead. But it all came undone in the third quarter, and the Firebirds were heartbroken and thinking about what could have been after a 47-41 loss.

“We started out really well, but we just didn’t pull through,” said Firebirds senior star Madeline Westbeld, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds. “At the end of the day that’s all that matters.”

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The Firebirds (25-3) collected their runner-up trophy with blank stares. They didn’t change expression while MND (28-0) collected its 10th regional championship trophy. After some time in the locker room, the Fairmont players came out and hugged — some of them cried — with family and friends. Madison Bartley, another of the Firebirds’ five starters, wiped away tears and summed up her team.

“There’s a lot to say,” she said. “We just had a great bond. There was nothing that could break us, and we fought our hearts out that whole game. It just didn’t turn out how we wanted it. But I know we’re going to be really close the rest of our lives, and that’s what really counts.”

None of the seniors played their final basketball game. Westbeld will play at Notre Dame, Bartley at Belmont, a Division I school in Nashville, Tenn., Kyndall Ketterer at Urbana, Makira Webster at Moberly, a top junior college program in Missouri, and Kierra Thornton is undecided on her junior college destination.

Westbeld on Friday was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Ohio. She led her team in scoring (18.0) rebounds (11.2), assists (3.6), steals (2.8) and blocked shots (2.3).

“No. 1 she’s a great basketball player and very deserving,” Fairmont coach Jeremey Finn said. “She’s a team player. She’s not one that worries about scoring or anything like that. She takes care of business in the classroom. She’s just a great kid and extremely special.”

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The Firebirds started like the day would be special for them. Webster hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter and Westbeld, Ketterer and Mallory Hullinger hit threes as well. The Firebirds made 7 of 11 shots, including 5 of 9 3-pointers, and led 19-8. However, Westbeld had two fouls and Bartley picked up her second early in the second quarter. Still, Fairmont still led 25-21 at the half.

“We went in at half and still felt OK,” Finn said.

During a first-quarter timeout Cougars coach Scott Rogers reminded his team not to panic. They had been down by double digits a few times before this season and always won.

“I just said, ‘Hey, relax. That’s a big run — we’ve just got to get on our own run,’” said Rogers, whose team won its 44th straight game. “Let’s worry about us. And that’s what they did.”

The run came after Fairmont took a 34-27 lead on a Thornton 3-pointer with 4:36 left in the third. The Cougars scored the next 10 points to take a 37-34 lead into the fourth quarter. The Firebirds struggled to score during that run and in the fourth, while the Cougars continued to work through sophomore KK Bransford in the high post. She scored 20 points, including her 1,000th point, and was part of an offensive rebounding effort of 19 that took its toll on the Firebirds.

“We had a heck of a chance, and needed some little things here and there to get us over that hump — an offensive rebound, a boxout — we didn’t do enough,” Finn said. “A team like that they’re so good at playing so hard, and it just keeps coming and coming.”

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