AKRON -- Through his tenure as Stow-Munroe Falls girls basketball coach, Bob Podges has concentrated most of his effort on one side of the floor.
"Obviously, we know how to play defense," Podges said. "Our defense now is the best I've ever had."
The Bulldogs defense outdid itself at the Division I district tournament at St. Vincent-St. Mary.
In the district semifinal Feb. 27 at SVSM, Stow outscored Boardman 36-3 to the second half, turning a close contest at halftime into a 60-21 rout.
However, Podges knew the real test for Stow would come March 2 in the district final vs. Canton McKinley. McKinley routed Walsh Jesuit 66-26 in the other semifinal at SVSM Feb. 27.
"It will be a game we've been looking forward to. We've been talking about McKinley all year," Podges said, acknowledging the Lady Pups eliminated Stow from the playoffs last season. "That was the focus of our offseason."
Stow brought its defense to the McKinley game as well, holding the Lady Pups to as season-low 37 points.
However, McKinley's defense played well too -- and it set the stage for its superstar to break Stow's hearts.
Sophomore Cistern Bell hit an off-balance, contested 3-pointer with three seconds left, giving McKinley a 37-36 win over Stow in the district final.
Stow finished the season at 22-4, while McKinley improved to 21-5.
"I can't say enough about our team," Podges said. "We played as hard as we could for 32 minutes. It took a fantastic shot from a fantastic player to beat us tonight.
Bell basically was McKinley's offense, as she scored 24 of the Lady Pups' 37 points.
"It was the perfect way we followed our game plan tonight," Podges said. "We wanted to hold her 25 points and shut down the rest of them. We did that."
Stow had an eight-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, before Bell scored nine of the game's final 10 points.
"We kept telling out girls, 'It's not over,'" said McKinley coach Pam Davis. "We got some loose balls and were able to hit our free throws. You've got to give a lot of credit to Stow's defense. That was our lowest point total of the season."
Stow's defense was on early, as the Bulldogs snagged nine steals in the first half alone. Neither team shot the ball well early as McKinley led 7-5 after one quarter. However, Stow made it clear this game would not be a repeat of the 45-27 rout McKinley put on the Bulldogs last year in the regional semifinals.
While McKinley was able to hit five field goals in the second quarter, Stow guard Theresa Parr started to find her range, hitting a variety of short jump shots.
"Theresa was outstanding tonight," Podges said. "She's been our leader all year long."
A layup by Destinee Lee gave McKinley a slight 17-16 lead at halftime.
Stow held McKinley to just two field goals in the third quarter, but the Lady Pups kept it close by going 11-of-12 from the free throw line.
Parr and guard Emily Andrassy were able to hit some transition shots in the third quarter, giving Stow a 28-25 lead after three. Andrassy had nine points for the Bulldogs.
The fourth quarter started perfectly for Stow, as a 3-pointer from forward Lindsay Molnar and a 15-foot jumper from Andrassy gave the Bulldogs a 33-25 lead.
Stow still had a 35-27 lead when Davis called timeout 3:34 left.
That's when Bell started to heat up.
After a layup and two free throws from Bell, forward Lizzy Stefanov split a pair of free throws to make it 36-31.
Stefanov had done a solid job defending Bell, including three blocked shots, but Bell hit a 3-pointer with 1:51 left to cut it 36-34 with 1:51 left.
From there, Stow did a good job killing the clock, forcing the Lady Pups to foul. Stefanov was fouled with 18.4 seconds left, but missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
McKinley took its final timeout with 12.5 seconds left and every one in the arena knew Bell was getting the ball. Despite having Stefanov with a hand in her face, Bell drilled a 3-pointer from the elbow to give McKinley the lead.
"She made a great shot," Podges said. "We had two people all over her, but she made it. You can't defend it better than that."
Parr's last-ditch shot from half court was wide of the mark as time expired.
In the Boardman game, the Spartans attempted to slow down Stow early by using a four-corners offense to pull Stow out of its pack line defense.
The move, combined with some cold shooting from the Bulldogs, kept the contest close early, as it was tied 11-11 after one quarter.
"Early in the game, we missed a lot of open shots," Podges said. "I knew we'd be fine once they started falling."
Boardman guard Jenna Vivo was the focus of the Spartans' offense, as she scored 10 of Boardman's 18 first-half points.
Once Stow shifted Andrassy onto Vivo defensively, her production dropped off.
"Emily did a great job on their stud [Vivo]," Podges said.
Stow took the lead at the end of the first half, as forward Lauren Turschak hit her first 3-pointer of the season just before the half.
Up 24-18 at halftime, Stow seemed to have the momentum on its side, but just how much was impossible to know.
Stow ran its offense through its forwards early in the third quarter. Turschak and Stefanov responded by putting up the first eight points of the quarter.
Stow was just getting started, as the Bulldogs were able to completely shut down the Spartans' offense.
Stow finished with a 21-0 edge in the third quarter, giving them a 45-18 lead after three.
Although the Bulldogs emptied their bench in the fourth, their defense didn't rest. A 3-pointer from Lauren Gabrille early in the fourth quarter accounted for all of Boardman's second-half points.
Turschak led the Bulldogs with 14 points. Parr added 13 points, while Stefanov had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Stow will say goodbye to Turschak, Molnar and guard Kayla Adams this spring.
"There's a long story behind our team. Last year in the middle of the season, we switched to playing a bunch of underclassmen," Podges said. "These three seniors are the ones who stayed through that process. I love them all."