FAIRMONT — Visiting University brewed up the perfect storm to ravage Class AAA. No. 1 Fairmont Senior's undefeated season on Wednesday at the FSHS Field House.
UHS coach David Price crafted a masterful two-way game plan, the team's youthful roster displayed a moxie beyond its years, and the Hawks as a whole embraced the daunting challenge of standing up to the Polar Bears with an unshakeable nerve.
Yet, when the game was truly on the line in the do-or-die moments of winning time, Fairmont Senior's championship DNA and competitive spunk overrode it all, as the Polar Bears outscored the Hawks 27-10 in the fourth quarter to claw their way to a 75-60 comeback victory and move to 12-0 on the season.
"I saw the grit at the end. Even though we had the shovels and kind of dug the holes, what I saw was the determination and grit at the end," said Fairmont Senior coach Corey Hines, whose Polar Bears trailed the Hawks 50-48 entering the fourth period. "It was just that will to win, and I got to take that."
"That was championship basketball -- it was back and forth and we really battled tonight," Price said. "As a coach, I enjoyed it and as a fan I enjoyed it -- obviously, I'd like to be on the other end of that, but it's always the little things that get you, be it a rebound here or a non-box out there, you throw it away here or there. But hat's off to Fairmont."
For three-plus quarters, Price's Class AAAA No. 9-ranked Hawks (7-7) had the Class AAA No. 1 Polar Bears (12-0) on the ropes. UHS attacked FSHS's vaunted pressure with aggression to both draw fouls and unearth transition layups and open kickout 3s offensively, and defensively, the Hawks unfurled a man-to-man-and one, with freshman center Lily Jordan plopped in the paint as a sort of zoned-up rim protecting rover.
But for all of the Hawks' off-court shrewdness and on-court spunk, come the fourth quarter, Fairmont Senior's star duo of Marley Washenitz and Meredith Maier rendered all of it moot, as the two juniors put their team on their backs and delivered clutch play after clutch play to rally the Polar Bears.
"They make big plays at the right time," Hines said of Washenitz and Maier, "and Emily Starn too."
Washenitz, especially, shifted into takeover mode in the fourth quarter, as she hit University with an avalanche of momentum-swinging plays of all forms and fashions en route to scoring 12 of her game-high 22 points in the period, as well as two big-time assists that resulted in a pair of layups for Bekah Jenkins.
"When you make good plays or have you good plays, no matter who it is on the team, or if its offensively or defensively, the team's spirit goes up, so it was any type of play, whether it was on defense getting a steal or making a layup, simple small things," said Washenitz, who finished with a full line of 22 points, nine rebounds, six assists and six steals. "As a team, we came together and we were like, 'We're not losing.' And we never really got nervous or anything, and we knew we'd pull together because we have a lot of trust in each other."
Washenitz started her fourth quarter tour de force with a pull-up 3 to slice UHS's lead to just one at 53-52. Moments later, she pulled FSHS in front 54-53 with a pump-fake and finish in the lane, and then she zinged an assist to Jenkins on the weakside for an and-one layup. When Jenkins missed the ensuing free throw, again Washenitz proved undeniable as she swooped in to grab the offensive rebound and notch a putback that put the Polar Bears up by five with five-plus minutes to play.
Following a steal and free throws by Starn, Washenitz dimed up Jenkins on a hit-ahead pass for another layup and dropped in a bucket of her own with a blow-by take to the tin that made it a 10-point game with under three minutes to play and essentially do UHS in for good.
"In the fourth quarter, I think by far, Marley's one of the best," Hines said. "A lot of people will harp on what she can't do, or try to find something (off) in her game, but out of anyone in the state, that's who I want to go with."
Alongside, Washenitz, who scored or assisted on 13 of Fairmont's first 21 points in the fourth quarter, Maier put up a monster double-double of 21 points and 13 rebounds, to go with three assists, with 15 of her points coming in the second half, including three huge buckets in the fourth. All throughout the second half, Maier breathed constant life into the Polar Bears with a flurry of catch-and-shoot midrange jumpers and read-and-react decision making in dribble handoff sitautions from the foul line area.
"They went to their two big players (Washenitz and Maier) to finish it out, and they did a good job of making they finished it," said Price of Washenitz and Maier, who either scored or assisted on 19 of FSHS's opening 21 points of the fourth.
Fairmont Senior, which was down a starter in junior forward Laynie Beresford, also got 13 points and six rebounds from Bekah Jenkins. while Reagan Blasher had eight points and Starn finished with seven points, four assists and three steals.
Freshman Ella Simpson scored a team-best 16 points to go with six rebounds for UHS before fouling out, while junior Laura Dean added another 14 points and six rebounds. Simpson and Dean also defended Fairmont's duo of Maier and Washenitz, respectively, for the majority of the game in battle of stars.
Sharpshooter Ashlyn Weaver poured in an additional 12 points for the Hawks, as she came off the bench to drill four 3s, while sophomore Eden Gibson dished a team-best five assists and Jordan pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds.
UHS, which actually outshot FSHS 46.7% to 38.9% for the game, trailed 19-14 after the first quarter and 34-26 at halftime. But the Hawks then peeled off a crushing 14-0 run in the third quarter to take a 40-36 lead with 3:25 to play in the period. The spurt was the peak form of a UHS squad that gave FSHS a handful of problems both offensively and defensively.
On defense, Jordan barely ever left the paint — forming an extra of layer of resistance for Washenitz and Maier inside — often at the expense of yielding open perimeter jumpers in a wager Price was willing to make. And offensively, UHS went right at Fairmont Senior with off-the-bounce bravado and opportunistic fast breaks that, when combined with some foul trouble to Washenitz, prompted Hines to mostly stash his team's signature pressure looks in favor of an extended 2-3 zone.
"His game plan was excellent, but I knew I was going to get that," Hines said of Price. "We're sharing film and we're looking at each other, and I knew my best preparation for the state tournament, out of every game we played, would be against him because I know he would show us what we needed to work on as a group."
Simpson was the Hawks' main offensive engine with a fearless dribble drive game that amounted to six free throw attempts in the first half and then a 4-of-6 shooting performance in the second half. Dean and Weaver, meanwhile, loomed as marksmen waiting to spurn Fairmont Senior for its traps and dig downs, and Gibson steadily controlled the majority of the Hawks' ball handling duties despite being just a sophomore.
"I tried to tell them before they came out that we have to keep our head up and go at their pressure to make it work against them a little bit," Price said. "I definitely felt like we showed we wanted to play and we answered a lot, but Corey's got a very good basketball team."
And in gut check time, Fairmont Senior cast aside the brilliance of UHS's game plan and matched the Hawks' fight to escape yet again unscathed and perfect on the season.
"They came out really feisty and really fiery and they wanted to win just as much as we did and they never gave up," Washenitz said. "It was a good kind of eye opener to see that no matter how we come into a game, we have to approach every team as if it's the best team we're ever going to play."