CHAMPION - Mark Baker achieved his 100th career win as the girls' basketball coach at Newton Falls on Thursday.
It's safe to say that most of the first 99 wins were probably easier on his heart than was the 40-39 win over the Champion Golden Flashes in an All American Conference National Division game.
The Tigers (13-1 and 6-0 in the AAC) didn't get their first lead until Danielle King scored off an offensive rebound with 17 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. They trailed by nine points, 11-2, out the gate and spent the rest of the game in a catch-up mode.
Newton Falls’ Alissa Abraham (12) steals the ball away from Champion’s Emma Nicholas (34) during third-quarter action on Thursday.
"The kids certainly felt confident," Baker said. "I felt confident. At the beginning of the game we lost our composure a little bit, but after that they settled down, and in the second half I didn't see us lose our composure. The kids stayed true to what their game plan was and really executed it down to the end."
It wasn't like the Tigers lacked motivation. Anytime Newton Falls and Champion square off, there's a little extra tension. Added to that was the desire of the Tigers to get the 100th win for Baker.
"I've been looking forward to this all season," said junior Brooke Barreca, who scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Tigers. "We knew at the beginning of the season that we had to get his 100th win by the end of the season. The fact that it landed on Champion made it all that much better."
Baker clearly enjoyed the moment when the final buzzer sounded. He was surrounded by the players in a group hug.
"The 100th win brings back memories of kids I had in the past and kids I have right now," Baker said. "It's a tribute to my players. It's a tribute to my coaching staff. I give all the credit to those kids."
Baker wasn't able to breathe a little easier until King's fielder gave the Tigers a 40-38 lead. Newton Falls still had to deal with one more possession by the Flashes, who had a chance to tie the score when Mackenzie Kiser stepped to the foul line with 2.1 seconds remaining.
Kiser made the first of a one-and-one, but she missed the second shot. Champion was awarded the inbounds pass, but with a fraction of a second remaining there was nothing it could do to pull out the win.
The loss dropped the Flashes to 8-7 and 4-2 in the AAC. It's been rough for Champion coach Jeff Thompson of late. Darian Rogers recently suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Jordyn Skaggs was on crutches and wearing a walking boot earlier this week with an ankle injury, and Heather Shaver had a temperature of 101 degrees on Wednesday.
"Coming into today I knew I had lost Rogers," Thompson said. "I didn't know if Shaver and Skaggs were going to play today, and (Emma) Nicholas is trying to come back from a high ankle sprain. Based on who we had on the floor, they gave me their best effort."
The Flashes, who had a 34-31 lead entering the fourth quarter, stretched the lead to 36-31 on a layup by Kiser, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. Barreca then connected on a fielder, and King, who had 10 points, made her second 3-point shot to tie the score.
Gabby Lamont, who finished with 13 points, put the Flashes ahead again with a jumper, but Barreca calmly made two free throws to knot the score at 38 and set up King's game-winning shot.
"We came from a tough win on Monday against Crestwood where we lost our composure a lot," Barreca said. "The past few days we've been working on keeping our composure. I thought we did very well at bringing it back together, and we pulled it out at the end."
Newton Falls plays LaBrae Thursday at home. Champion hosts Campbell Memorial the same night.