By Brad Morris
When senior point guard Jaylah Captain suffered a season-ending ACL injury back in January, the Circleville Tigers made a pledge to repeat as Mid-State League Buckeye Division champions for their injured teammate.
That pledge, however, was in jeopardy on Wednesday night with the Tigers trailing visiting Liberty Union by two points with a half-second showing on the clock.
“I knew I had to make something happen for my teammates and especially for Jaylah, because when she went down with that injury, we told her that we’d win the league championship for her,” Circleville senior post player Kenzie McConnell said. “We had to score there or it was going to be the end of my career. I wanted to walk out of here with a win and as a league champion again.”
Kenzie McConnell caught an inbounds pass from Morgan Blakeman to the left of the lane and put up a jumper in midair that sent the game into overtime. The shot gave the Tigers the necessary time to complete their comeback and knock off the Lions in a thrilling 57-52 win.
“I got enough air under the shot and I was just praying that it would go in,” Kenzie McConnell said. “When it got there and went through the net, it was just amazing.”
Already the Tigers all-time leading scorer, regardless of gender, Kenzie McConnell capped her career with a double-double of 27 points and 10 rebounds to finish 10th overall in the area for all-time scoring (1,570 points).
“I really haven’t been able to work primarily in the post like I wanted to this season, so I’ve had to find different ways to get the ball and score from different spots on the floor,” Kenzie McConnell said.
Her younger sister, Gabby, scored all 12 of her points in the fourth quarter and overtime, while also contributing 10 rebounds and four assists, and Morgan Blakeman chipped in 10 points and six rebounds.
The Tigers (17-4, 11-1) avenged a 55-46 loss to the Lions (16-6, 10-3) earlier this week that snapped their 29-game league winning streak dating back to 2019. Kenzie McConnell, who also scored 27 points in that game, felt the balance the Tigers achieved on Wednesday night made the difference.
“We didn’t have a lot of balance over at Liberty Union on Monday, but Morgan helped us get out to a good start, Gabby came on down the stretch and everyone stepped up and contributed when they needed to,” she said. “That’s what makes this so special, because it took everyone to win the league.”
The Tigers led by as many as nine points during the second quarter before heading into intermission with a 30-24 lead.
Liberty Union changed the complexion of the game with a 17-6 third quarter to take a 41-36 lead. Four different players had a hand in the scoring output during the period, led by Abbie Riddle connecting on 4 of 6 (66.7 percent) shots to finish the quarter with nine points to go with a pair of rebounds and assists.
The Tigers opened the fourth quarter scoring seven of the first nine points, capped by a three-pointer from the right wing by Gabby McConnell to tie the game with 6:14 remaining.
“We had some trouble against Liberty Union’s pressure, but Gabby helped us settle down some in the fourth quarter and overtime and we were able to get back into a better rhythm and execute in the half-court,” Kenzie McConnell said.
Liberty Union regained the lead on a steal and layup courtesy of Arica Keiffer and stretched its advantage to 49-45 on a put back from Ember McClaskey.
A pair of free throws by Gabby McConnell made it a two-point game with 1:24 remaining.
The Lions had a chance to put away the league championship, but missed the front end of two one-and-one opportunities in the final 48 seconds, leaving the door open for Kenzie McConnell and the Tigers.
Circleville then forced overtime on a play that coach Steve Kalinoski has had in his arsenal over the past several seasons.
“We’ve ran that play for a few years and everyone did a nice job of executing to give Kenzie the opportunity to hit the shot,” he said. “Lily Winter had a nice screen to get Kenzie open enough to catch the ball in the air, Morgan made a nice pass and then Kenzie is savvy and knew that she had to catch and shoot if the shot was going to count.”
Gabby McConnell put the Tigers ahead to stay when she took a feed from Blakeman and buried a triple from the right wing on their first possession of overtime.
Gabby McConnell then came up with a steal and, following a missed shot, Kenzie McConnell grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled by Abbie Riddle going up for the put back. The Circleville senior made both free throws to make it 54-49, but perhaps even more important, it fouled out Riddle and forced the talented sophomore point guard to the bench for the rest of the game.
The Lions cut their deficit to 54-52 and had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Gabby McConnell came down with a rebound on the missed shot and was fouled. The CHS freshman drained both free throws to make it 56-52. Blakeman later split a pair of free throws to cement a 57-52 win for a joyous streak of Tigers.
“I’m just so proud of our kids and they way they battled and competed against a very good Liberty Union team,” Kalinoski said. “Liberty Union was the better team when we played on Monday, but we made some adjustments and the kids did a great job of executing enough to end the season with a great victory and put a number on our banner again.”
After scoring 30 points earlier in the week against the Tigers, Riddle had another standout game of 25 points to lead the Lions. Caroline Berlekamp followed with eight points.
“We put in a defense (on Tuesday) in practice that we ran when Alyssa Evans was playing over at Amanda-Clearcreek,” Kalinoski revealed. “I felt like Faith Yancey face-guarding Abbie, Alaina Francis and the other girls we had on Abbie made her work very hard for her points.
“Abbie still scored 25, but that’s a credit to her and why she is a tremendous player.”
The Lions actually made five more field goals than the Tigers, shooting 22 of 57 (38.6 percent) to 17 of 39 (43.6 percent) for CHS. The difference came at the free throw line, with the Tigers going 20 of 23 (87 percent) to the Lions’ 2 of 6 (33.3 percent).
Circleville had 16 turnovers compared to nine for Liberty Union, but had a 33-23 advantage on the glass.
Following the game, the Tigers made their way over to the student section, the first time the team has had one this season due to COVID-19 attendance limitations, and sang the school’s fight song, Across the Field, just as they had done 26 times last season following a win en route to finishing as a regional runner-up.
“It felt like normal again, having a great crowd and being able to go over to the student section and sing with my teammates and them after the game,” Kenzie McConnell said. “That bought back memories from last season and was a great way to finish my high school career.”
Liberty Union 52 OT
LIBERTY UNION — Arica Keiffer 2-0-5, Abbie Riddle 11-1-25, Ember McClaskey 1-1-3, Delaney Peck 2-0-5, Caroline Berlekamp 4-0-8, Maggie Cundiff 2-0-6. Three-point goals — Riddle (3), Cundiff (2) and Keiffer. Total — 22-57 2-6 52.
CIRCLEVILLE — Faith Yancey 1-0-2, Alaina Francis 1-2-4, Morgan Blakeman 3-3-10, Gabby McConnell 3-4-12, Lily Winter 1-0-2, Kenzie McConnell 8-11-27. Three-point goals — Gabby McConnell (2) and Blakeman. Total — 17-39 20-23 57.
Quarter scores 1 2 3 4 OT F
Liberty Union 12 12 17 8 3 52
Circleville 16 14 6 13 8 57
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