BRIDGEPORT - Nicole Smolenak was staring deja vu in the face Thursday night.
With Bridgeport trailing Wheeling Central early in the fourth quarter of their Wheeling Hospital OVAC Girls Basketball Championships Class 2A semifinal, the Lady Bulldogs' veteran floor leader was bound and determined not to let her last game on Frank Baxter Court end the same way her junior season concluded on the same floor in a loss to Shadyside.
The savvy senior calmly connected on back-to-back bonus baskets midway through the fourth quarter to propel the state-ranked, unbeaten and No. 1 seeded Lady Bulldogs (20-0) to a 50-43 come-from-behind triumph over fourth-seeded Wheeling Central (9-7) before a packed house inside the John J. Havlicek Gymnasium.
BRIDGEPORT’S Nicole Smolenak looks to go up for a shot against Wheeling Central’s Regan Blaha during Thursday’s OVAC?Class 2A semifinal inside the John J. Havlicek Gymnasium. Smolenak had a big fourth quarter to help lead the Lady Bulldogs to a 50-43 victory against the Maroon Knights.
"After that loss to Shadyside, this was my biggest goal," Smolenak said of not losing this year. "I wanted to come back and make it to the OVAC finals. I did not want to lose tonight. No way!"
With the come-from-behind win, Bridgeport, which was ranked third in the latest Associated Press Division IV state poll, advances to the 2A championship game Saturday night against No. 3 seed Frontier, which ousted No. 2 River, 50-46, Wednesday night. The game tips off at 8 inside the Health and Physical Education Center on the campus of Ohio University Eastern.
"I never thought it would be easy," fourth-year Bridgeport head coach Rob Zitzelsberger said of the much-hyped contest. "Like I said before, Wheeling Central has quality coaches and they had four extra days to prepare for us. We knew it would be a game like this."
With her team on the short end of a 37-35 count, Smolenak took over. The 5-3 point guard dialed long distance twice near the midway point of the third stanza to give the Bulldogs a 41-37 advantage that they would never relinquish.
Caitlyn Kroll tallied four points to give Bridgeport a 45-42 lead with 1:45 remaining, and after a Maroon Knights miss, Smolenak was fouled. A nearly 90 percent shooter from the charity stripe, she tickled the twine twice for a 47-42 advantage with 1:16 left.
Wheeling Central's Mackenzie Michaels hit the backend of a two-shot foul at the 1:04 mark to make it 47-43, and the visitors got the ball back seconds later on a turnover. However, a three-point attempt was off the mark.
"We made some mistakes down the stretch and that's kind of what we've done all year," veteran Wheeling Central head coach Penn Kurtz said. "We're kind of a young team, but I thought we gave them (Bridgeport) everything we had. We had the lead in the fourth quarter, but we had a couple of key turnovers and a couple of forced shots there at the end.
"They (Bridgeport) have young players, too, but they've been playing together," Kurtz added. "We have five new starters and we haven't been consistent throughout the year. I told the girls that we took a good step tonight, now we have to keep building on that."
Bridgeport's Briana Massey converted a conventional three-point play for the final margin of victory.
"Down the stretch we did what we had to do," Zitzelsberger said. "Nicole hit two big 3s and we hit our foul shots down."
Smolenak led all scorers in the game with 19 points while also pulling down a game-best 11 rebounds. Classmate Maclaine Murad added 10 points and six boards. She now has 997 markers for her career. Kroll, who was saddled with two fouls early in the first quarter, finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. Massey added nine points and a like number of boards.
Cate Calissie paced the Maroon Knights with 15 points. Lindsey Baker added 10. Regan Blaha had seven points and seven rebounds.
Bridgeport held a commanding 41-28 advantage off the glass. Both teams charted 11 turnovers.
With the loss, Wheeling Central will host River in the third-place game. The date and time haven't been set.
The Maroon Knights won the JV game.
WHEELING CENTRAL (43) - Blaha 2-6 2-2 7; Calissie 6-13 0-0 15; Baker 5-10 0-0 10; Michaels 1-4 1-2 3; Cross 0-2 0-0 0; Olson 1-2 0-0 2; Denniston 1-5 0-0 3; Bennington 1-3 1-2 3; Totals: 17-45 4-6. BRIDGEPORT (50) - Kroll 1-9 6-6 8; Murad 2-9 5-8 10; Smolenak 7-14 2-2 19; Millard 2-8 0-2 4; B. Massey 3-7 3-4 9; Renzler 0-1 0-0 0; Totals: 15-48 16-22.
Three-Point Goals: Wheeling Central 5 (Calissie 3, Blaha, Denniston); Bridgeport 4 (Smolenak 3, Murad)