BLAIRSVILLE — The Blairsville Bobcats are known for their ability to light up the scoreboard with their high-powered offense. But coach Ralph McGinnis knows the secret to his team’s success is its defense.
That’s a lesson the Marion Center Stingers learned the hard way Wednesday.
With his team down early in the game and playing poorly on offense, McGinnis implored the Bobcats to emphasize defensive pressure against the Stingers in their highly anticipated Heritage Conference girls’ basketball game. And as quickly as the Bobcats fell behind, they rallied back and blew past Marion Center, 62-45, to seize sole possession of first place in the league.
“Coach pretty much told us that if we were going to win this game, that defense would be the key,” said Blairsville’s Chelsey Koren. “I mean, defense is the most important part of basketball, and we just had to stop them from scoring.”
At 7-0 in the conference, Blairsville (11-1 overall) holds a one-game lead on the Stingers (10-3, 7-1). Considering the way the rest of the Heritage Conference is shaping up, that one game might hold up until the rematch Feb. 13 in Marion Center.
“It’s a huge win,” McGinnis said. “You’ve got to win your home games. Now, we’ve also got to go up there and win in their atmosphere, and that will be tough. But this is a big win. To win the conference, we’ll have to go through them and they’ll have to go through us. It’s really a two-team race.”
Marion Center coach Jan Brocious hopes her team puts forth a better effort when they meet Blairsville again. She lamented how the Stingers played toe-to-toe with Blairsville in the first 16 minutes, but got knocked out by the second 16 minutes.
“Two quarters isn’t enough against good teams,” she said. “You have to play a full four quarters. They’re in (the locker room) crying because they know they let one slip away when they were right in it.”
The Stingers found some success in the first quarter by using back-door cuts and motion to sneak in for easy buckets, but McGinnis ordered his team to tighten the clamps midway through the period, and the Stingers never really got much going after that. Marion Center’s six-point lead evaporated quickly, and Blairsville’s Nicole Boyer drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Bobcats take a lead they never relinquished.
“We got away from our game plan when things didn’t go our way,” Brocious added. “They girls have to realize that it’s when things don’t go your way that you have to stick to the game plan more than ever.”
For the Bobcats, it was another slow start that they had to overcome.
[PHOTO: Blairsville's Kearsten Brocious (32) defends Marion Center's Chelsey Koren (33). (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)]
Just like they did last month against two powerful private schools, Delone Catholic and Bishop Guilfoyle, the Bobcats fell behind early and then clawed their way back to steal the win.
“That’s the way it’s been for us all year: The second half is when we turn it on,” McGinnis said. “We’ve only played a couple games where we’ve come out strong in the first quarter. I think we get stronger as the game goes on. We condition pretty hard. Most teams are tiring out by the time we get to the end of the game.”
It’s such a familiar pattern that McGinnis long ago learned not to stress out about it.
“I know what these girls are capable of,” he said. “These girls don’t panic. They just play so hard.”
Brocious said the pressure of a big game might have contributed to her team’s poor second-half play, when Blairsville extended its four-point halftime lead to a cushion as large as 17 points.
“It was a big game, and we came out and only played half a game,” she said. “We didn’t play the second half. We let them get into our heads a little bit and we lost our focus. That’s when our defense went down and our offense wasn’t there either. We’ve got lots to learn but I think we proved in the first half what kind of quality team we are. … I hope I can get these girls to believe in themselves because I’m not sure they realize how good they can be. Blairsville has a very good team, but we are that quality, too.”
Thanks to Koren and Laurel O’Barto, the Bobcats were able to easily show what kind of quality basketball they are capable of.
Koren, a junior who reached the 1,000-point mark last week, had game-highs with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and O’Barto, a fellow junior, added a double-double of her own, with 14 points and 11 assists.
The Bobcats also got a lift from Boyer, who scored 11 points, and Kia Clayton, who scored 10 points and spearheaded the defensive effort.
Chantel Glasser led the Stingers with 14 points. Hanna Jo Beer had nine rebounds to go along with her nine points.
“This was a huge game for us,” Koren said. “We came into this knowing Marion Center was one of the best teams in the conference. We knew we had to bring our ‘A’ game and play well.
“I’m so proud of my team for the way we played.”
NOTES: Blairsville’s Mary Ann Ostach was the only non-starter to score for either team, with two points. … The Bobcats won despite a vast difference in free throw shooting: Marion Center went 13-for-17 from the line; Blairsville made just 1 of 4 attempts. … Blairsville has won 29 Heritage Conference games in a row. The Bobcats’ last defeat in league play was to Homer-Center, 62-58, on Jan. 20, 2012.