RAVENNA — The fact Stow-Munroe Falls girls basketball advanced to its fifth district title game Friday was no mean feat.
However, the Bulldogs had been eliminated in three straight district final games prior to this season.
Stow looked to end that dubious streak Friday at Ravenna when it faced a Warren G. Harding squad looking to win its first district title since 2000.
Maybe it was karma from losses. Maybe it was just Stow playing another great defensive game.
Whatever the reason, after three years of heartbreak, the Bulldogs are heading back to regionals.
Stow led nearly from wire-to-wire and slowed down the Raiders’ offense to score a 44-32 win at James L. Coll Gymnasium in Ravenna.
The Bulldogs improved to 23-2 with the win. Stow advanced to play Canton GlenOak Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Division I regional semifinal game at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. GlenOak defeated North Canton Hoover 63-38 to win the Massillon district Friday.
Harding finished the season at 22-3.
Stow coach Bob Podges was beaming after the game, noting his team had done another great job following the game plan.
"I thought we did a really good on our transition defense," Podges said. "We had worked on it all week. We did an excellent job holding them up and making them make shots.
"I think teams are shooing 17 percent against us this year from the three-point line," Podges said. "The thing about ‘pack line’ defense is it’s designed to take away the dribble drive, but we do a good job getting out on shooters as well."
The run-and-gun-style Raiders were never given a chance to run. While Harding forced 17 Stow turnovers, the Bulldogs did not give up any fast-break points on the night, while forcing 21 Harding turnovers.
Raiders coach Frank Caputo noted, if anything, Harding got beat at its own game a bit.
"Our transition normally is our strength; they ended up with eight or 10 points in transition in the first half," Caputo said. "We were very out of character in a lot of ways tonight. I though we played hard all game. We just had some mental errors that hurt us."
Harding forward Faith Burch opened the game with a layup but after Stow forward Kristin Chmielewski coverted a thee-point play at the other end, Stow would never trail again.
The Bulldogs opened the game on a 12-4 run and led 15-7 after one quarter.
"I think we realized at the beginning of the game they weren’t going to be able to run on us," said Stow senior forward Kira Philpot. "We knew we could run to, so we just had to take our chances when we could."
Philpot put home four of Stow’s six second-quarter points and finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, despite having to deal with Burch on defense. Burch had a huge game on the boards with 18 rebounds and finished with a team-high 13 points.
"[Burch] is a great player," Podges said. "Kira did a great job against her all night."
Although with Burch, Harding got 12 points from guard Diamond Phillips and seven points from Kamarah Bender — but those were the only three Raiders who scored.
"Nobody else was able to get any shots tonight," Caputo said. "Game like this are all about experience. Stow has a lot experience at this level."
Up 21-13 at the half, Stow looked to take command of the game with a 7-2 run to start the third quarter, giving Stow its biggest lead of the game at 28-15.
It was at that point where Harding turned up it its trapping game, While Stow was able to weather the pressure for the most part, a 5-0 run at the end of the third quarter by Harding cut the lead to 30-22 after three quarters.
The first half of the fourth quarter saw both teams turn up their defense, which led to several wide scrambles on the floor.
With Stow leading 34-24, Burch hit one of only two three-pointers on the night for Harding and the Raiders went into fouling mode.
After Stow point guard McCoy missed the front end of a one-and-one situation, Harding fumbled the rebound out of bounds.
That would prove to be Harding’s last chance, as the Bulldogs would nail their final 10 free throws to ice the game.
Stow guard Lilee Carlson — who had issues at the free-throw line in the district semifinal — hit six straight free throws, including two one-and-one situations down the stretch.
Carlson finished with a game-high 13 points for the Bulldogs.
"It just acted like I was in practice," Carlson said. "I had some problems on Tuesday at the line, but I practiced my free throws all week. It mean so much to win this tonight. We fought through adversity the last two years to get here and it just feels so good."
Harding kept forcing the Bulldogs to the line, but Philpot would nail the final two free throws with 12 seconds left to provide the game’s final margin.
"It’s really important for us to get this win, but we’re not done yet," Philpot said. "We’ve got to get back to work and just play our game."
Podges admitted he didn’t know much about GlenOak, but that the Bulldogs would simply get back to work in preparation for the Eagles.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_GHO