UHRICHSVILLE - For the first time in more than three decades the Bridgeport girls' basketball team is headed to the district tournament.
The state-ranked Lady Bulldogs used a tenacious defensive effort and hit their free throws down the stretch in notching a 46-36 triumph over Frontier (19-5) in a Division IV lower bracket sectional final Thursday night inside Claymont High School.
With their 23rd victory in 24 starts, Rob Zitzelsberger's squad not only advances to New Philadelphia High School Thursday at 8 p.m. and a district semifinal date with state-ranked Hiland (20-4), which manhandled Caldwell, 65-16, in last night's second game in Tuscarawas County, but it also equaled the school record for most wins in a single season set in the early 1980s.
BRIDGEPORT’S Nicole Smolenak and Briana Massey celebrate the Lady Bulldogs’ 46-36 victory against Frontier in the sectional co-final at Claymont High School Thursday evening. The Lady Bulldogs are headed to the district and avenged their lone loss of the season. Additional images may be found at cu.timesleaderonline.com
The win also avenges the lone blemish on Bridgeport's schedule, a 46-44 setback in the Wheeling Hospital OVAC Class 2A championship game nearly two weeks ago.
"Our intensity was there tonight," Zitzelsberger said. "We took the ball to the basket and made them play defense against us. In the OVAC game, we just stood around. The girls watched that tape and knew what they had to do."
As for the revenge factor?
"We don't look at it as revenge," he admitted. "We just look at it as coming out and playing Bridgeport basketball. We did that tonight against a very good team.
"Frontier has a good team and they battled us," he added. "I think they surprised us a little in the OVACs, but we took care of business tonight."
Bridgeport, which was ranked sixth in the final Associated Press poll, roared out to a 9-2 lead only to watch the Cougars claw their way back and lead 13-11 at the first buzzer.
The Bulldogs led 24-19 at the half and extended the margin to seven, 28-21, early in the third quarter when Nicole Smolenak buried a bonus goal and Caitlyn Kroll added a free throw.
Frontier, which finished with 21 turnovers and more than a handful of the unforced variety, reeled off seven of the final eight points to trail, 29-28, with eight minutes remaining.
That's when Bridgeport put on a free-throw shooting clinic. A 75-percent team from the charity stripe, the Belmont Countians had meshed only half of their previous 14 attempts in the game, including an ice-cold 3-for-10 during the two middle periods. However, they tickled the twine on 11 of 14 tries to pull away.
"We're a 75 percent free-throw shooting team. Why were missing them? I don't know," Zitzelsberger said. "It might be nerves, but we made them down the stretch and that's when it counts."
Senior Maclaine Murad nailed five of the freebies, while Smolenak added four and Kroll two. Bridgeport was 18 of 28 overall, with Kroll making half of them on 12 tries.
"Give Bridgeport credit," Frontier head coach Scott Murphy said. "We knew that one of the keys coming in was to take care of the basketball and, obviously, with 21 turnovers we didn't do that.
"They put some pressure on us early and got us uncomfortable, but then give us credit for coming back like we did," Murphy added. "The third quarter was like a stalemate, but we got into foul trouble in the fourth and they were able to make some free throws."
Zitzelsberger couldn't have been happier with his team's performance, or that of its fans who made their little over an hour trip.
"To get to the district is an accomplishment for our team, our fans and the entire community," Zitzelsberger praised. "They are all behind us and we had a really nice crowd here tonight. They've supported us all season and we appreciate that."
Kroll and Smolenak evenly divided 26 markers, with Murad one back with a dozen. Briana Massey and Keri Renzler combined for the other eight with four each.
Kroll also pulled down 10 of Bridgeport's 26 rebounds, while also charting four steals, two assists and a pair of blocked shots. Smolenak added four steals, a trio of boards and three assists, while Murad wiped the glass clean seven times.
Kelsea Daugherty had a double-double for Frontier with 14 points and a like number of rebounds. Lexi Brookover finished with 13 points.
Bridgeport had just eight turnovers. Six of them came in the first half after it had built the 9-2 lead.
FRONTIER (36) - Daugherty 6, 2-3 14; Hinton 0, 0-0 0; Maston 3, 0-0 6; Fieckiesen 1, 1-2 3; Brookover 6, 0-0 13; Haught 0, 0-0 0; Moore 0, 0-0 0; Strickler 0, 0-0 0; Newlen 0, 0-0 0; Totals: 16, 3-5. BRIDGEPORT (46) - Kroll 2, 9-12 13; Murad 3, 5-8 12; Smolenak 4, 4-8 13; B. Massey 2, 0-0 4; Millard 0, 0-0 0; Renzler 2, 0-0 4; Johnson 0, 0-0 0; Totals: 13, 18-28.
Three-Point Goals: Frontier 1 (Brookover); Bridgeport 2 (Smolenak, Murad)