By Josh Brown
NEW MADISON — Miami East’s Haley Howard still remembers how Tri-Village planned to defend her the past two years.
“They said I wouldn’t shoot it. They said ‘she won’t shoot it (when she gets the ball beyond the 3-point line), just stay back,’” the Viking senior said. “So I shot it and made it. The second time I came back down, they said ‘she won’t shoot it again,’ so (the defender) stayed off me again — and I drained it again.”
Howard, the Vikings’ 6-foot post player, ended up hitting three 3-pointers, including two key ones during the decisive third quarter, and junior point guard Morgan Haney nailed five more as East connected on 10 from long range as a team, then Bailey Miller and Kaitlyn Mack knocked down their free throws in the fourth quarter as Miami East held on for a 65-59 victory on the road over three-time defending Cross County Conference champion and state-ranked Tri-Village Thursday night to claim the top spot in the league’s standings.
The win was the eighth straight for the Vikings, who improved to 12-3 overall. More importantly, though, Miami East improved to 7-0 in CCC play and took sole possession of first place, snapping a three-year-plus league winning streak for Tri-Village, which had gone undefeated in the conference the past three seasons. The Patriots, who were tied for No. 7 in the Division IV state rankings, fell to 10-3 overall and 6-1 in the CCC.
And while every Viking stepped up in key moments during the game, Howard’s long-range sharpshooting was arguably the most poetic.
“You know, it’s funny — when we were up here two years ago in a similar kind of game, which we ended up losing, Tri-Village’s coach had told Haley’s defender not to go out on her because she wouldn’t shoot the 3,” Miami East coach Bruce Vanover said. “It’s really not her game, and I don’t think they came out on her. She told me before the game, ‘remember, if they don’t come out, I’m popping the 3s.’ She missed a couple early, but when she hit one, I knew another one was coming.”
Howard had a double-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, one of three Vikings to reach double figures on the night. And fellow senior Bailey Miller — who has been more of a distributor than a scorer this season — converted two three-point plays, went 6 for 9 from the free throw line in the game and scored six of her 14 points in the fourth quarter to help East hold off a Patriot rally attempt.
“I think I attacked the basket a lot more,” Miller said. “Usually I’m the one who sits outside and chucks up 3s, but I missed one early and knew that I had to get some layups and get to the line.”
Haney, who missed all of last season with an injury, led all scorers with 19 points for the Vikings, hitting two of her five 3s in the third quarter as Miami East turned a 29-29 halftime score into a 50-40 lead heading into the fourth.
“Exhilarating. It’s just awesome,” Haney said when asked how it felt to beat Tri-Village. “I love playing with these girls, and we really just knocked down shots. I think every girl on this team did a great job tonight and did their part in getting us the win.”
“I think Morgan was pressing a little early and getting frustrated,” Vanover said. “She came over to the sideline, and I told her to be confident in herself and that good shooters don’t stop shooting.
“I told the girls two things before the game: don’t foul them, because they make free throws, and believe in yourselves. That was really what we talked about at halftime — believe in yourself, and you won’t be tired. And that’s a mindset thing. I kept asking the girls if they were tired, and they kept saying no.”
Tri-Village certainly wasn’t going down without a fight, though.
The Patriots put four players in double figures on the night. Trisa Porter had 17 points, with eight coming during the team’s fourth-quarter rally, and eight rebounds, and Lissa Siler added 17 more points. Emma Printz scored 14 points and Maddie Downing had 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Vikings led by 10 at 60-50 with 1:49 to play, but Tri-Village cut the lead to five after a series of Miami East turnovers led to a layup by Porter and three free throws by Printz. To that point the Vikings only had committed three turnovers through the first three quarters, but the Patriots forced eight in the fourth alone in a mad push to get back into the game.
“I definitely got nervous at the end,” Haney said. “But coach always tells us to stay calm, and that’s something I always try to work on. That’s a key part of my game, trying to stay calm and run the offense and get up the court. I know we had a couple of turnovers, but eventually we got the hang of it and were able to pull through.”
But Mack hit a pair of free throws for the Vikings with 34.7 seconds left, then she hit two more after another Porter layup to keep the Vikings up by seven with 9.1 seconds left. Siler hit one last bucket for the Patriots with 6.8 seconds left, but Mack hit one last free throw with 5.9 seconds to put the game on ice.
“Kaitlyn being 5 for 6 (from the free throw line), that’s huge,” Vanover said. “To hit some free throws late in the game is huge, because we haven’t been shooting them well. They know they’ve got to shoot them to win big games, and it’s what it’s going to come down to. I can’t say enough about the way the girls responded.”
Mack finished with nine points on the night, Camryn Miller hit a pair of 3s and finished with six points and six rebounds and Maria Staton scored two points.
The CCC championship has been won by either Miami East or Tri-Village for the past 11 seasons,with the Vikings winning four straight from 2006-10 and three more from 2011-14. With Thursday’s win, the Vikings now control their own destiny with five more conference matchups to go — beginning with Ansonia coming to town Saturday.
“It feels pretty good,” Bailey Miller said. “I haven’t beaten them (Tri-Village) my whole high school career.”
“It feels great,” Howard said. “Senior year, we’ve always thought about this. We’ve always been close with them, but going out and finishing it like this, I don’t even have words to say.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.