HANNIBAL -- In the first four games of the 2012-13 girls' high school basketball season, Bridgeport hadn't been tested in rolling to convincing victories by more than 32 points a night.
The Lady Bulldogs first acid test of the season came Monday night when they traveled south on Ohio 7 to meet homestanding River at the R.L. Potts Gymnasium.
Trailing by eight points on several occasions in the third quarter, Bridgeport remained focused and got key plays down the stretch from 'role' players in rallying for a nail-biting, 44-42, win over their Division IV sectional rival.
BRIDGEPORT’S NICOLE Smolenak (33) drives past River’s Cassidy McCullough during action from Monday night’s game in the R.L. Potts Gymnasium in Hannibal. Bridgeport won, 44-42. Additional images may be found at cu.timesleaderonline.com
"I told the girls to stay the course," Bridgeport head coach Rob Zitzelsberger said of his third-quarter talk with his team. "As soon as we get the lead, we're going to sit back in a 2-3 zone. They (River) hit a couple of threes, but I told the girls we were alright.
"I told them that if they were open, they had to take the shots," he continued. "We hit a couple of pretty big ones."
On the short end of a 34-27 count after three periods, Bridgeport reeled off eight straight points to grab a 35-34 upperhand with an even 5 minutes remaining.
The final six counters came from the unlikeliest of sources as Briana Massey took a nifty bounce pass from Nicole Smolenak and banked home two points while being fouled. Her ensuing free throw put the visitors ahead, 35-34, with 6:00 on the clock.
"That three-point play by Briana was huge," Zitzelsberger revealed.
Exactly one minute later after a River turnover, Kaitlyn Benda, one of two seniors on the squad, found herself wide open on the left wing. The left-hander calmly sank the trifecta.
"That put us up by four," Zitzelsberger noted. "It's not only who gets the points, but it's the players that listen to what we do in practice and then execute it in the games that will make us successful."
However, the Pilots (4-2) weren't about to go away quietly as Haylee Bowers' bonus bomb from the right corner tickled the twine and deadlocked the game at 42 with 2:22 remaining.
Maclaine Murad gave Bridgeport a 43-42 edge when she knocked down the front end of a two-shot foul with 36.9 ticks left.
River called timeout with 19.5 on the clock to setup its last-second strategy, but things went awry and Benda came up with a big steal.
"It's the little things like that that don't show up in the box score that are huge," Zitzelsberger said of Benda's swipe.
Freshman Caitlyn Kroll was fouled with 7.1 seconds left. She hit the first charity toss for a 44-42 advantage, but missed the second as Jensen Caretti snagged the rebound and the Pilots used their final timeout at the 3.5-second mark.
After the inbounds pass was knocked out of bounds by Bridgeport, the hosts found themselves with one last shot at the win, or tie, but the final shot was off target.
"We had an 8-point lead and let it slip away," River head coach Rick Isaly offered. "We went cold to start the fourth quarter and they (Bridgeport) hit their shots when they had to."
Kroll, a promising frosh, led all scorers with 14 points, including a huge trey that ignited the early fourth-quarter run. Murad added 11 points and Smolenak eight. Benda also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, while Smolenak charted five assists and three steals.
Caretti, another up-and-coming freshman, paced the Pilots with a dozen markers and a game-high nine rebounds. Laken Ramsay also scored 12 and handed out five assists, while recording a trio of steals.
Bridgeport led 38-29 off the glass and turned the ball over 12 times, four more than River.
The Pilots won the JV game.
Bridgeport hosts Weirton Madonna Thursday. River entertains Frontier.
BRIDGEPORT (44) - Smolenak 2 2-2 8; Kroll 6 1-2 14; Murad 4 2-4 11; Benda 1 1-2 4; Massey 1 1-1 3; Higgenbotham 2 0-0 4; Renzler 0 0-0 0; Totals: 16-45 7-11. RIVER (42) - La. Ramsay 5 0-0 12; Bowers 1 2-4 5; McCullough 2 1-4 5; Weaver 4 0-0 8; Caretti 6 0-1 12; Lan. Ramsay 0 0-0 0; Young 0 0-0 0; Totals: 18-46 3-9.
Three-Point Goals: Bridgeport 5 (Smolenak, Kroll 2, Murad, Benda); River 3 (Lak. Ramsay 2, Bowers)