By Josh Brown
PITSBURG — On a night where neither team shot well, Miami East girls basketball coach Bruce Vanover reminded his team of one thing.
“Like I told the girls — all you’ve got to do is win by one now,” he said. “That’s all that matters. Survive and advance.”
The Miami East defense held National Trail to a mere three field goals Thursday night, negating the Vikings’ own struggles on offense — which ended up dissipating a bit in the fourth quarter as the 10th-seeded Vikings nearly matched their total for the previous three quarters combined and pulled away for a 35-14 victory over No. 9 National Trail in the opening round of the Division III sectional tournament at Franklin Monroe High School.
Miami East, which improved to 12-11 with the win, had blasted the Blazers 52-24 in the penultimate game of the regular season, making Thursday’s result look less like a minor upset than the seeds suggest. But the Vikings also had to work for it, as National Trail held the Vikings to only five first-half field goals and kept the game low-scoring on both sides.
“We’ve played good defense these last eight games, are 7-2 over our last nine,” Vanover said. “We gave up 14 tonight, gave up 24 the last time we played them, and I just can’t say enough about how the girls have bought into what we’re doing. I think that’s important.
“I know offensively, it wasn’t a pretty night. I told them before the game that we’re probably not going to beat them by 28 like last time. They’re scrappy, and one of the things they did defensively against our offense is that they outworked us a little bit and made it hard for us to do things. But that’s what you want to do at this point in the year. And if you’re going to struggle (in the tournament), struggle in the first one.”
In the end, Miami East simply struggled less.
The teams shot a combined 5 for 23 from the field in the first quarter, with the score tied 6-6 after the first eight minutes. Things didn’t improved in the next quarter, either, as the Vikings and Blazers were a combined 7 for 40 at the half — but both of those two second-quarter field goals came from Miami East as its defense shut Trail out in the quarter, putting the Vikings up 11-6 at halftime.
“Their guards play hard,” Vanover said of National Trail. “One thing in my scouting report I had is that they get quick shots, they get out on you defensively and you have to take care of the ball. We had five turnovers in the first quarter, so obviously we weren’t doing that. But we finished with 12, because we settled down after the first quarter.”
A jumper by Gabrielle Hawkins and a putback by Haley Howard pushed the Vikings’ lead to 15-7, but a 3 by Trail’s Evan Byrd got the Blazers back to within five.
That 3 proved to be the only field goal East would allow the rest of the way, though, and a 3 by Bailey Miller and free throw by Amber Kinnison put the Vikings up 19-10 heading into the fourth quarter.
Miller added a fast-break layup and a 3 in transition in the fourth and Kinnison had a pair of transition buckets as Miami East began to pull away, beginning the quarter on a 12-1 run and building a 20-point lead at 31-11. The Vikings outscored to the Blazers 16-4 in the fourth and 24-8 overall in the second half to close out the game.
Miller scored eight of her game-high 10 points in the second half, Howard — who led the Vikings against the Blazers in the first meeting with 16 points — added seven points 13 rebounds and three assists, Kinnison scored all six of her points in the second half and added six rebounds and Gabrielle Hawkins chipped in six points. Emily Hawkins had three points, Kaitlyn Mack had two and Sage Hunley had one.
“Bailey’s had a really nice season. You just wait on her, and at some point, she’s going to get going,” Vanover said. “Against Northwestern, she missed her first five 3s then ended up going 3 for 5 in the second half. She’s at that point where keeping her shooting is important.
“That’s the thing about Haley — she was struggling shooting early, and I kind of got on her on the bench about having some confidence. She’s a three-year varsity player, and she came right out and had a nice little inside-out pass to Gabrielle for a jumper. She just does a good job of doing the little things that go unrecognized. And to their credit, every time she got the ball, three people went to her.”
Evan Byrd had five points to lead National Trail, Makena Laird had four points and seven rebounds, Jalynn Byrd had three points and Savanna Abner had two.
Miami East will now face No. 11 Dayton Christian in the second round Tuesday — a rematch of the Vikings’ season opener, which they won 48-40.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.