COLUMBUS — Jackson Center battled all the way back from a 14-point deficit after three periods to tie defending small-school state champion Waterford.
But a driving layup at the buzzer by Hayley Duff gave the Lady Wildcats a 37-35 thriller, and brought the Lady Tigers’ season to an end in the Divison 4 state semifinals Thursday evening at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
Jackson Center finishes the season with a 23-5 record. Waterford is now 25-3 and plays for the D-4 title on Saturday afternoon.
“Quite honestly, I had no clue how much time was left on the clock but I knew it wasn’t much,” said Duff of her shot.
“It wasn’t exactly the way we drew it up but that’s the second time she has done that for us in the postseason,” said Waterford coach Jerry Close.
The Lady Tigers started out strong, taking advantage of Waterford’s 2-3 zone. Senior standout Cassie Meyer drained a three-pointer on the game’s first possession, and after Waterford got an offensive rebound and stickback, Kennedie Reese hit another three for an early 6-2 lead.
Then after a bucket by Waterford’s Megan Ball, it was Kamryn Elchert’s turn to hit from long range, her three making it 9-4 with 3:57 remaining in the opening quarter.
But the Lady Tigers would not score again in the quarter, which ended 9-9, and Alli Kern of Waterford hit a three to start the second quarter to give the defending state champions their first lead at 12-9.
After Alicia Kessler scored for Jackson, Waterford went on a 8-0 run to open up a 20-11 advantage. Fortunately for the Lady Tigers, they scored the final four points of the first half to make it 20-15 at the intermission.
Both teams shot 33 percent in the first half, with Waterford taking six more shots. Waterford also held a 15-13 advantage on the boards and had seven offensive rebounds for a 7-0 advantage in second-chance points. All of Waterford’s points came from just three different players.
Olivia Clark scored to pull Jackson within 20-17 to start the third quarter, but Waterford countered with a three from Kern.
After Christen Ware made a free throw with 2:28 left, Waterford exploded over the final 2:05 of the period. Duff scored on a layup, then Kern hit another three, followed by a two-point jumper to make it 30-18. Then at the buzzer, Rachael Adams converted inside and it was suddenly a 32-18 bulge for Waterford with one period to play.
But that all changed in the fourth quarter, and it was nearly enough for the Lady Tigers to pull out a stunner.
Kessler got Jackson Center going in the final period, scoring the first two buckets to trim the lead to 10. Then two buckets by Meyer and a free throw by Vanessa Winner made it 32-27 with 3:24 remaining in the game, and Waterford had yet to score in the final quarter.
Neither team scored for nearly two minutes, and then with 1:32 remaining, Elchert brought the Jackson Center fans to their feet with a three-pointer to cut the lead to 32-30.
Alli Kern made a free throw for Waterford’s first point of the final period with just 1:09 remaining, but that was countered by another bucket from Winner that made it 33-32 with under a minute to go.
Kern hit two more free throws with :39 seconds left for a 35-32 lead, but Meyer drained a three with 20 seconds to go to raise the roof off the Schottenstein Center and tie the game up at 35-35.
Waterford ran the clock down under five seconds and got the ball to Duff, who converted with just one second remaining to pull out the win for the Lady Wildcats. It was Waterford’s only field goal of the final period.
“It was certainly a hard-fought battle on both sides. It was very physical from the start,” said Jackson Center coach Jeff Reese. “Waterford hit some big shots and got up on us and it started looking a little bleak, a little gloomy. But once again we had some kids step up and make some plays and we started chipping away.”
Meyer finished with 10 points to lead Jackson Center. Winner added seven and both Elchert and Kessler six each. Kessler also had six rebounds in an excellent effort off the bench, and Meyer finished with four assists. Elchert had three assists.
Kern had 17 and Duff 10 for Waterford.
Jackson was 14-for-42 from the field for 34 percent. Over the first three quarters, the Lady Tigers struggled, shooting just 25 percent, but hit 7-for-14 in the final period.
“I can’t tell you we did anything differently,” Reese said. “I think we just had a different mindset. We wanted to put ourselves in a position at the end of the game so we could win it and these ladies did that.”
Waterford was 14-for-38 for the game for 37 percent. Jackson outrebounded the Lady Wildcats 29-25.
Jackson Center (35) — Reese 3, Elchert 6, Meyer 10, Clark 2, Ware 1, Winner 7, Kessler 6.
Waterford (37) — Adams 2, Ball 8, Kern 17, Duff 10.
Score by quarters:
Jackson` 9 ` 15 ` 18 ` 35
Waterford` 9 ` 20 ` 32 ` 37
Three-pointers: JC 5 (Elchert 2, Meyer 2, Reese); Waterford 4 (Kern 4).
Records: JC 23-5, Waterford 25-3.