MILLER CITY — It was familiar territory for Van Wert.
When Van Wert got down 9-0 early into Wednesday’s Division II sectional semifinal girls basketball game against Elida, the Cougars did not panic.
For most of this season, Van Wert has found itself battling back after an early deficit.
In Wednesday’s sectional semifinal against Elida, the Cougars battled back, took the lead and hung on for a hard-fought 51-46 victory over Elida.
With the win, Van Wert (6-16) will face No. 1 seed Napoleon in a sectional final Saturday at Miller City. Tip-off is set for 6:15 p.m.
On Wednesday, Van Wert trailed until late in the first half.
But once the Cougars claimed their first lead, they staved off the Bulldogs the rest of the way.
“That’s been our Achilles heel all season long (slow starts),” Van Wert girls coach Rob Adams said. “Tonight, I think it was jitters. We tried to stay pretty tame about it. When it’s tournament, anything goes. We got on them a little bit in the huddle and then the sparks came.”
Reagan Priest led Van Wert and all scorers with 19 points. Priest, who missed about half of the regular season due to an injury, also came away with six rebounds and five steals Wednesday.
“It was dynamite,” Adams said about Priest’s performance. “That’s all I can say about a senior who has had a tough go at it her senior year with the broken leg. We knew it was going to take a while for her to get back into the flow. But man, she found her stroke tonight. I’m really proud of her.”
Abby Jackson, a 6-foot senior post player for Van Wert, had 10 points and five rebounds. Jerica Huebner had eight points and five boards for the Cougars.
Hayleigh Bacome led Elida (8-15) with 11 points and four rebounds. Teammate Amira Freeman added nine points, six boards, three assists and two steals.
Elida jumped out quickly on Van Wert, starting the game with the 9-0 spurt. Cienna Kuhn (seven points) nailed a 3-pointer to ignite the run for the Bulldogs.
Van Wert responded and cut the deficit to 3, 14-11, by the end of the first quarter.
Priest led the Cougars, scoring eight first-quarter points.
The game was knotted twice, late in the second quarter, before the Cougars claimed their first lead of the game, 22-20, on two free throws by Huebner with
just seconds remaining to play in the first half. The two-point lead for the Cougars held up to the halftime break.
Jackson got busy in the second quarter and scored eight points down low.
For the half, Elida was 8 for 26 shooting from the field. Van Wert was 9 for 23 from the floor.
The Cougars came out aggressive after the break.
Van Wert quickly extended its lead to 31-20, just four minutes into the third quarter. The Cougars forced the Bulldogs into six turnovers during that run.
The Bulldogs battled back, however, cutting the deficit to 2, 35-33, by the third stop. Elida turned the ball over seven times in the third stanza.
For the game, Elida turned the ball over 16 times. Van Wert turned the ball over 11 times.
However, in the fourth quarter, Van Wert limited Elida’s touches and held on for the win. Alexis Metz (six points, four assists) nailed two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to lead the Cougars.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Elida coach Roman Youngpeter said. “We had a run right out of the gate. Then, Van Wert brought it back. It was a back-and-forth game. I thought toward the end, we played as hard as we could. I think we just got a little tired there toward the end. We didn’t get some of the rebounds we needed, in order to get an extra possession. But that happens. We gave it our all. I can’t ask for any more out of our girls.”
For the game, Elida shot 33 percent from the field. Van Wert connected on 39 percent of its field goal attempts.
Elida held the slight edge on the boards, 38-35.
Van Wert defeated Elida in the regular season, 42-36.
“I’m just proud of the girls,” Adams said. “I’m elated with emotions right now. We’ve been wanting this one all year. We didn’t have the greatest record in the world, but I know my girls play hard. That’s the biggest thing for us. We play so dang hard. We give everybody we play fits.
“As long as we can control the tempo and do the things we need to do, I think anything can happen at this point.”
Reach The Lima News sports department at 567-242-0451.