The Lady Red lost for just the second time this season, coming up one game short of the state semifinals to Toledo Rogers for a second time after falling 60-45 at Mansfield Senior’s Pete Henry Gymnasium.
“We didn’t lose this game tonight — we learned a lot,” Santoro said. “We feel like we have a good chance of getting back here next year.”
The Lady Red, who finished with a 25-2 record and a No. 2 final ranking in the Associated Press state poll, were in a unique situation this season.
Bellevue had no seniors on its roster, which is rare for any program in any particular season. While the Lady Red were loaded with young talent, there was still questions of in-game tournament experience.
Yet with under a minute to go in the first half, the Lady Red held a lead over the powerful Rams, who head to state for a third time in five years — beating Bellevue in each season.
A seven-minute stretch in Friday’s loss essentially cost the Lady Red the game, with the Rams outscoring them by 19 (23-4) in the 15-point win.
“We gained a ton of experience in this situation,” Santoro said. “We had girls that were really upset in the locker room afterwards. They truly felt they could win and beat this team. They felt they let one slip away — they know they did.”
Bellevue went 21-1 in the regular season, losing only to AP No. 4 Minster, which plays for a spot in the Div. IV state semifinals tonight.
In the 22-game regular season, the Lady Red averaged 64.5 points per game while allowing just 43.9 — winning by an average of 21 points per contest.
In SBC Lake division play, Bellevue averaged an impressive 86.7 points per game, allowing just 52.8 en route to a 12-0 record and subsequent eighth consecutive league championships.
Sophomore guard Casey Santoro scored 560 points in 27 games this season (20.7 average) to pace the Lady Red. Younger sister Cory (15.5) and junior Payton Vogel (9.2) helped with a formidable scoring threat each game.
The Lady Red also survived several scares in the tournament, notably in a March 1 district semifinal vs. Ontario. Bellevue trailed with under three minutes left, and Casey Santoro’s driving layup over two defenders with 1.2 seconds left lifted the Lady Red to a 39-37 win.
Bellevue also trailed 9-0 to start the district title win over Norwalk on March 3, and didn’t pull away from Norton until the third quarter in Tuesday’s regional semifinal.
Among the highlights next season with the entire roster returning is a trip to the prestigious Classic in the Country at Berlin Hiland over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The Lady Red will face Loudonville in the stout showcase.
“We have everyone coming back, and they’ll come back even stronger next year,” Kory said. “I think we’ll learn a lot from this, and spend the offseason working as hard as possible to get back here and get another shot at them (Rogers).”