ELYRIA — After three straight years of falling short in the Division I district semifinals, Avon Lake finally found the formula for success — defense, intensity and hard work with a sprinkle of outside shooting.
The third-seeded Shoregals mixed that all together Monday night to knock off second seed Westlake, 44-29, at Elyria Catholic’s Coliseum.
Everyone in an Avon Lake uniform, especially seniors Amber Achladis, Elizabeth Murdock and Allie Heschel provided defense and intensity and junior guard Arianna Negron brought her shooting touch to connect on three 3-pointers en route to a game-high 20 points.
The Shoregals (20-3) advance to meet No. 1 seed Olmsted Falls for the district title, Thursday at 7 p.m.
“Working so hard all season to make it to the district finals and to get another chance to play Olmsted Falls feels so good,” Heschel said. “We know it’s going to be a tough game, but we’re ready.”
Avon Lake and Westlake were tied at 15 with 1:36 left in the first half before the Shoregals scored the final six points of the half to lead 21-15.
Avon Lake picked up where it left off in the third quarter, extending the lead to eight at 30-22.
“Our pressure and our ability to handle our press was the key to the game,” Heschel said. “That’s all we talked about at halftime was breaking their press, because we struggled with it the first two times we played them.”
The Shoregals went from committing five turnovers in the opening quarter to only four in the entire second half.
“These kids work hard in practice. We go full-tilt everyday with good fundamental drills and you saw that pay off tonight,” Avon Lake coach Dave Zvara said. “Our best offense was our defense. In tournament time, every team is good. It comes down to the teams that can execute and play with heart, and these girls showed a lot of heart tonight.”
Avon Lake was effective driving to the basket, getting to the free throw line and not getting flustered by Westlake’s aggressive, physical defense. The Shoregals shot 26 free throws, compared to six for Westlake.
“We knew coming into this game that it was going be a physical game,” Achladis said. “It was going to be a battle and our coach said, ‘Don’t let it get into your head. You’re gonna get pushed, you’re gonna get knocked down.’ The main reason we won this game was because we didn’t let anything beat us up. We battled through everything, no matter if they went on a run or they were knocking us down. We battled relentlessly.”
Avon Lake avenged one of the regular-season losses, having split the season series with their Southwestern Conference rival. On Thursday, the Shoregals will have a chance to check off the other two losses after Olmsted Falls swept the season series, winning 55-49 on its home court early in the year and 35-34 at Avon Lake on Jan. 16.
“We’re so excited for Thursday, Achladis said. “Our ball movement is great, we’re playing as a team and we’ve been progressively getting better all season. We think that’s gonna take us far.”
Westlake’s biggest lead of the night was three, 15-12, with 3:10 to play in the first half after a basket by freshman Katie Whitesell. Junior Gina Adams led the Demons (18-4) with 10 points despite fouling out 2:44 left in the game.
The good news for Westlake fans, and possibly the bad news for the rest of the Southwestern Conference, is 26 of the Demons 29 points on Monday came from underclass.
“I feel like we’re peaking at the right time and we’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Zvara said. “The girls are believing in themselves, they aren’t thinking a lot out there. They are going out and playing their game.”