Underdog St. Paul had forced No. 1 seed Buckeye Central into a 13-11 deficit in the later stages of the first half — mainly off the strength of 14 turnovers.
But 5-foot-10 junior forward Anna Lukasko went down with a knee injury and did not return — and 22 seconds later, 6-foot junior post Megan Hammersmith picked up her second foul.
That was the window the Buckettes needed. Buckeye Central closed the half with six straight points for a 17-13 lead — then blew the doors off the Flyers in the third quarter to the tune of a 29-0 scoring run in a 52-22 win at Willard High School.
Lukasko did not return, and the Flyers — who finish 17-7 overall — were not the same team at the start of the third quarter.
Much of that though, was because of Buckeye Central (21-3), which is going for its third straight district championship at 7 p.m. Saturday vs. St. Mary Central Catholic (17-6).
Claudia Pifher scored the first seven points of the second half in a 1:10 span — and suddenly St. Paul found itself down 24-13 and looking for answers.
“You’d like to tell yourself that one person doesn’t make that much of a difference, but we all know that’s not true,” St. Paul coach Vicky Mahl said. “We told them at halftime that they had to come back in ready to play whether Anna is in or not, and make adjustments.
“But tonight was just not our night,” she added. “I’m proud of the kids. They didn’t give up and kept fighting. Just a bad night to have a bad night. I think for almost a half we had them in a position they weren’t used to being in too often, but that was a big sequence.”
By the time the Buckettes had finished the third quarter, it was an insurmountable 46-13 deficit for St. Paul.
The window to regroup at halftime wasn’t open enough for the Flyers, Mahl said.
“Anna is a big part of our team, a starter down low against a big team like Buckeye is,” she said. “When you lose a post starter the way we lost it — that tends to make a difference in the minds of high school kids.
“That’s a huge thing for them, and to ask them to come back right away from that is a lot to ask for young kids,” she added.
St. Paul had gotten early traction as Buckeye struggled with turnovers — which included nine alone in the opening eight minutes. The Flyers led, 6-4, after one quarter, with Hammersmith, Katie Kamann and Danielle Smith scoring once each.
Trailing 11-9 with 4:23 left in the first half, St. Paul tied the game at 11 on a pair of free throws by Danielle Smith.
Hammersmith and Smith then combined on a steal and assist in the backcourt, with Hammersmith putting in two easy points just seven seconds later to give the Flyers the 13-11 lead.
The game was tied at 13 when Lukasko went down with 2:28 left in the half, then at the 2:06 mark Hammersmith went to the bench with two fouls. Kyleigh Brown (5-9) and Lexi Evak (6-1) then scored inside in the final minute to give BC the 17-13 halftime lead.
Hammersmith finished with nine points for St. Paul, while Smith added five, and Kamann had four points and five rebounds.
St. Paul will lose just Lauren Chandler and Kamann from the roster.
“We’ve had a great season,” Mahl said. “We have two seniors and they are big holes to fill with Lauren as our point guard. That’s not the easiest thing to do.
“Hopefully we fill that spot, and Kati came a long way in her role,” she added. “We’ll take a little break and come back to it and see what we can do next year.”
BUCKEYE CENTRAL (21-3)
Claudia Pifher 7-4—20; Taylor Ratliff 2-0—5; Courtney Pifher 4-0—10; Kyleigh Brown 3-0—6; Lexi Evak 4-1—9; Elizabeth Heydinger 1-0—2. TOTALS 21-5—52.
ST. PAUL (17-7)
Danielle Smith 1-3—5; Camille Endsley 0-1—1; Megan Hammersmith 4-1—9; Lauren Chandler 1-0—3; Kati Kamann 2-0—4. TOTALS 7-5—22.
B. Central 4 13 29 6 — 52
St. Paul 6 7 0 9 — 22
3-point FGs: (BC) Cl. Pifher 2; Co. Pifher 2, Ratliff; (STP) Chandler