NORWALK — Facing its biggest challenge of the season, Avon Lake kept fighting.
Going up against Canton McKinley in the Division I regional semifinals, the Shoregals had to contend with Kierstan Bell, a 6-foot-1 senior who has won back-to-back Ohio Ms. Basketball Awards and is a McDonald’s All-American and a national top 10 recruit who has committed to play at Ohio State.
Bell, who averages over 32 points per game this season, scored 20 in the first half while also blocking three shots as the Bulldogs took a 36-24 lead.
In the second half, however, Avon Lake kept her under control. Bell hit just two field goals and scored seven points after halftime.
“We knew she was all this and all that, but we couldn’t let that get to our heads,” junior Arianna Negron said of Bell. “If it would have gotten to our heads we probably would have put our heads down and she probably would have gone off more than she did.
“We stayed on her and kept our intensity up the whole game.”
Senior guard Amber Achladis was proud of how her team battled against Bell in the second half.
“We came into this game knowing she is an excellent player, which she definitely proved tonight,” Achladis said. “No matter what the outcome of any game, our team doesn’t give up. Once they got a decent lead on us, that’s not the way we wanted to go out.
“We never gave up and I’m so proud of everyone for not giving up the whole time.”
Avon Lake coach Dave Zvara was not surprised his team kept scrapping.
“They’re hard-nosed kids,” he said. “Give me a player like (Negron), a player that’s intense, and you can get going. A lot of the time you can’t put spark in their butts, and she gets them going.
“Amber tried to take a charge down there, and we were down 20. They’re just a gutsy bunch. They have gone through the wall for us and I can’t thank them enough.”
Though Bell’s scoring was down in the second half, she did end the game with 10 rebounds, five blocks and two steals to go with her 27 points.
“We’ve faced some talented Division I players in our conference, but she’s one of the best I’ve seen,” Achladis said. “With her height and her size, that’s an advantage no one on our team has. She uses it really well.”
Negron, who ended the game with 10 points and six rebounds, said the Shoregals were never going to stop battling.
“It proved that even when we were down we didn’t give up,” she said. “We have the heart and the drive to keep pushing, whether we were down five or 20 points. We’re not going to stop.”
Ultimately, Bell was too much for Avon Lake to overcome.
“They tried hard,” Zvara said. “It’s been a great effort all year, and it was a great effort again tonight.”