By Brad Morris
Kenzie McConnell can sense a trend developing for the Circleville Tigers over the last four games.
“We play better as we go on in a game and by the time we hit the fourth quarter, we are playing better together, communicating and it feels like we are starting to find some chemistry,” the senior post player said.
The Tigers have held their last four opponents to an average of six points in the fourth quarter and they opened the final stanza on Tuesday with a decisive 9-0 run on their way to a 50-29 win over visiting McClain in a Division II Southeast District semifinal.
“We did a nice job of communicating on defense and having help-side when we needed it,” Kenzie McConnell said. “Then on offense, we did a nice job of spacing the floor, getting the ball to where it needed to be and hit some backdoor cuts to the basket.”
The third-seeded Tigers (16-2) advance to a district final for the third consecutive season and are slated to take on second-seeded Vinton County (22-1) on Friday at Southeastern. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Circleville held McClain to a paltry 9 of 49 (18.4 percent) from the field, including 4 of 22 (18.2 percent) from three-point range.
“We wanted to keep them out of the paint and we were able to accomplish that,” Circleville coach Steve Kalinoski said. “They like to drive to the basket and get to the free throw line, so we started the game in man and then switched to a 2-3 zone to continue and keep them out of the paint.
“It says a lot about our kids with the way they’re playing defense over the last few games and shutting opponents down.”
Circleville has held its first two tournament opponents to an average of 27 points, a key of which on Tuesday was limiting Frontier Athletic Conference Player of the Year Bri Weller to one point.
The Tigers opened the game by scoring the first seven points of the game on a pair of baskets from the left block by Kenzie McConnell and a triple from the right wing from her younger sister Gabby.
Iva Easter scored the lone basket for McClain in the first quarter on a drive to the basket with two minutes left in the period.
Kenzie McConnell scored four points and Gabby McConnell knocked down another triple off a feed from Morgan Blakeman to help power a 9-2 run that gave Circleville a 16-5 lead a little over midway through the second quarter.
Blakeman later ended the half with a runner from the right wing to send Circleville into the break with a 27-15 lead.
Despite shooting a crisp 19 of 35 (54.3 percent) from the field and 10 of 13 (76.9 percent) at the free throw line, it took until the fourth quarter for Circleville to deliver the knockout blow due to 19 turnovers, including eight in the third quarter.
“McClain did a nice job in their pressure defense and we had a tough time handling it until the fourth quarter,” Kalinoski said. “That’s something we’ll need to address before the district championship game.”
Circleville opened the fourth quarter on an aforementioned 9-0 run with four different players scoring to take a commanding 44-23 lead.
Kenzie McConnell led the Tigers with six points during the period and Gabby McConnell added five, as CHS shot 7 of 10 (70 percent) from the field.
“I usually get double or triple teamed, so it was nice to play a team we usually don’t see,” Kenzie McConnell said. “We put a few different things in offensively for this game that we were able to take advantage of.”
In her final game on the CHS hardwood, Kenzie McConnell turned in a typical statistic stuffed line of 25 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks and four assists. McConnell was 8 of 9 (88.9 percent) from the field and a perfect 9 of 9 at the charity stripe.
“It was nice for Kenzie to have another great game in her last time playing on this court,” Kalinoski said. “She’s a tremendous leader, our go-to-player and someone who does a lot of different things for us.
“We try to work our offense through Kenzie as much as possible, but I always look back at a game and think we could have got the ball to her a little more.”
Gabby McConnell contributed 13 points and five rebounds. Blakeman paced the defense with five steals.
Jaelyn Pitzer had 11 points and Easter added seven for sixth-seeded McClain (16-5).
Circleville now looks ahead to a second-straight district final against Vinton County after defeating the Vikings 61-45 a year ago.
Kenzie McConnell will be the only returning starter for the Tigers on Friday after they lost three players to graduation off of last year’s regional runner-up team and senior point guard Jaylah Captain to a season-ending ACL injury last month.
“We’re excited for the opportunity because one of the goals we set at the beginning of the season was trying to get back to the regional,” Kalinoski said. “This game is going to look quite a bit different with us losing five seniors off of last year’s team and not having Jaylah, while Vinton County has almost its whole team back.
“We’re going to have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball and really compete on the defensive end against a good-shooting team. It’s going to be a battle and we’re excited for the challenge.”
MCCLAIN — Bri Weller 0-1-1, Jaelyn Pitzer 4-1-11, Iva Easter 2-3-7, Josie Crabtree 1-0-3, Kyla Burchett 1-0-3, Emma Stegbauer 1-2-4. Three-point goals — Jaelyn Pitzer (2), Josie Crabtree and Kyla Burchett. Total — 9-49 7-11 29.
CIRCLEVILLE — Faith Yancey 1-0-2, Logan Jones 1-0-2, Alaina Francis 2-0-4, Morgan Blakeman 1-0-2, Gabby McConnell 5-1-13, Lily Winter 1-0-2, Kenzie McConnell 8-9-25. Three-point goals — Gabby McConnell (2). Total — 19-35 10-13 50.
Quarter scores 1 2 3 4 F
McClain 2 13 8 6 29
Circleville 7 20 8 15 50
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