A lot of games have been played in the local Division I prep girls basketball tournament just to reach the place where everybody expected to be.
Lakota West Firebirds vs. Mason Comets. Regional championship on the line. Winners go to state.
They’ll meet Saturday night at Fairmont’s Trent Arena. They met in the regional semifinals last year, with Mason taking a 44-43 decision.
“It’s so exciting, isn’t it?” West coach Andy Fishman said. “Our girls are ready. They’ve talked about this since the end of last year. Losing that last game left a bitter taste in their mouths, and they are excited about this opportunity to avenge that.”
Of course, these teams have played twice since the last regional showdown. Each squad won on its home floor, West 51-50 on Dec. 16 and Mason 61-54 on Feb. 10. They were Greater Miami Conference co-champions.
It’s developed into one of the best rivalries in the state. The schools are separated by less than 10 miles.
“Paul Reedy, our men’s soccer coach who retired this year, said he doesn’t know of any sports at our school that have established such a rivalry over the years,” Mason coach Rob Matula said. “I didn’t really think about it like that, but I guess it has. It’s something that people are looking forward to every year. I would suspect that Saturday will be a pretty fun atmosphere.”
These teams mirror each other in practically every way. They play the same high-intensity, high-pressure style of basketball. Similar athletes. Similar coaches. Similar schedules.
Both teams have a high-profile player surrounded by lots of talent.
Mason junior Sammie Puisis is averaging 17.3 points, six rebounds, three steals and 1.4 assists per game, and she’s verbally commited to Florida State. West senior Abby Prohaska is averaging 14.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.3 steals and three assists per game, and she’s signed with Notre Dame.
Puisis was sick and didn’t play in the teams’ last meeting, but the Comets won anyway. With her back at full strength, if there was a betting line, Mason would probably stand as Saturday’s favorite.
“That might be what Vegas says, but I think Vegas may underestimate the importance of Jasmine to them,” said Matula, noting that Firebirds senior Jasmine Ballew missed the February game because of a concussion.
“With Sammie, it’s kind of crazy, but with the flu, I think she was able to kind of rest her body a little bit and get some days where she could revitalize a little bit. She’s been playing really, really well, but I think more importantly, she’s been playing really, really well defensively and emotionally on the court. She’s coming out of her shell a little bit.”
Fishman said no high-caliber program lives and dies with one player.
“I think people like to talk about what’s sexy, and it was sexy that Sammie didn’t play against us the last time,” he said. “We preach all the time that a team is never about one player. You don’t do everything that you do to say, ‘OK, one man’s down, it can’t happen.’
“We wouldn’t have a banner in this gym with a state championship if that was the case. When Arianne Whitaker went down in the Final Four in 2015, what an inopportune time to lose your best defender and a kid who’s playing at Chattanooga right now. We still won. All these girls work hard. In situations like that where a player can’t play, I feel worse for the player who can’t play than I feel for the other girls who have to play without her.”
Matula wants a state title of his own. Mason took the big prize in 2000, but the Comets haven’t won a state championship during his 13-year tenure. Mason lost to Wadsworth in the 2016 final.
The Comets are starting Puisis, Sade Tucker, Megan Wagner, Tihanna Fulton and Anna Brinkmann. The Firebirds will counter with Prohaska, Ballew, Sarah Jones, Bryana Henderson and Nevaeh Dean.
The regional semifinals produced a pair of blowouts. West beat Walnut Hills 60-31 and Mason beat Mount Notre Dame 53-32. Matula said the Comets’ defensive performance was among the best he’s seen by one of his teams during a lengthy coaching career.
It has all led to another West-Mason showdown. As expected.
“When it gets down to games like this, it’s really not complicated,” Matula said. “In the end, it’s going to come down to some basic stuff, rebounding and free throws and who makes the shots when they need to. I like my chances with my team. But I’m also realistic enough to know it could go either way.”
“The longest sports season for a high school athlete is the girls and boys basketball season,” Fishman said. “When you play for the Lakota West girls, you know that you’re in for a journey, that you’re going to start your season in October and you’re hoping it doesn’t end until mid-March. We’re incredibly thankful and humbled to play for the opportunity to go to state.”
What: Division I regional girls basketball final, Lakota West (25-2) vs. Mason (23-3)
Where: Fairmont High School's Trent Arena, 3301 Shroyer Road, Kettering
When: 7 p.m.
Next: Winner advances to the state semifinals at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus and will play Pickerington Central at 8 p.m. on Friday