Waite’s pursuit of the school’s first state title at last week’s Division I girls basketball state championship came so agonizingly close to manifestation it may have wound up too close for the team to accept.
The Lady Indians (24-3) fell 49-47 to first-time state champ Canton McKinley in the D-I title contest — a pretty phenomenal result considering they trailed by as much as 30-17 late in the first half and by a 12-point deficit late in the third quarter.
A team that could barely hit a field goal or handle the ball in the first half neither gave up nor gave in. They tried to the bitter end to complete a hard fought quest to bring home not only a girls state championship to a school without one, but a profound statement to a city rolling in a budget crisis and threatening to eliminate future prep basketball contests from its public school gymnasiums.
Instead that quest fell short by a total of one deuce — not once, but twice. Or did it?
Waite received an inbound opportunity along the baseline just to the left of its target with 0.9 ticks left but 6-3 senior McDonald’s All-American Natasha Howard had just fouled out of the game seconds before, leaving 6-2 junior Shanice McNeal as the go-to for a potential game winning quick release shot attempt.
McNeal received the inbound about 11 feet from the basket and appeared to be stuffed cleanly going up for her shot. The accompanying tie-up lasted until the final buzzer sounded. But the nearby baseline official whistled a foul on McKinley to give Waite a second life, or a second reminder of its agony of narrow defeat.
A decent free throw shooter on the season, McNeal went to the line while all other players were cleared away to their respective benches with the clock expired.
There by her lonesome thrust into the most intense and pressure-laden moment of her young life was the junior, live on television before a Sports Time Ohio statewide and satellite viewing audience, before all of her senior teammates, her coaches, her family and teammates’ families, her classmates and community supporters in the stands and those back home in Toledo with thoughts of threatened Toledo Public school athletic cuts in mind.
At the end of the D-I state championship game.
Imagine McNeal’s nervousness. The thought had to cross her mind, as she set her feet at the charity stripe, that just one miss would spell doom for her team. No teenager should ever be put at such a threshold.
Perhaps it was far better that McNeal missed the front end of the pair of free throws awarded to her. Making the first to bring the Lady Indians within a point of forcing overtime- one that would have been played without Howard, only to miss that final equalizer would have been a far dryer pill to swallow.
Either way, the unwanted moment merely reinforced for Waite that destiny simply did not hold a state championship in the cards.
The many tears spilled by the girls in the aftermath had been avoided in a 61-55 edging of Kettering Fairmont in the D-I semifinals, but on sport’s cruel dark side, the agony of defeat is as necessary as the glory of triumph.
While Waite did not quite complete its quest to be crowned state titlists, no one among the Lady Indians, within the school or the city of Toledo should ever see this team as anything but a genuine example of what makes a champion.
The first team McDonald’s All-American and Northwest Ohio’s first crowned Ms. Ohio Basketball Howard wowed the Value City Arena crowd by almost singlehandedly guiding her team to a rousing comeback victory.
Howard, who will return right back to the court she just finished spilling tears upon March 31 in the McDonald’s All-American game, dropped in 23 points and a state-championship-game record-tying 14 rebounds. She applied seven of her eight steals during the second half comeback. As a possible future megastar in the sport, Howard departs the Lady Indians program having given her best effort in her final performance for her team, her school, her home.
But while their numbers weren’t as glaring on the final score sheet, McNeal, seniors Miriah Haynes, Courtney Jackson, and Fantasia Combs and junior Brooke Hunt all equally poured out their respective sweat on the floor before the tears flowed from exhausted hearts and bodies.
The Indians applied their signature press defense primarily in the final quarter and forced 14 second half Lady Pups turnovers after McKinley turned the ball over just three times over the game’s first 16 minutes.
They fought. They rallied. They exemplified effort, heart, courage and strength.
In the years to come the Indians will appear in media guides and be remembered locally as the D-I girls’ basketball runners-up. Permanent reminders will go up in the school gymnasium and the trophy case.
Hopefully this edition of Waite girls basketball will be better remembered in lore as a true champion, having embodied all the way to an anguishing finish what it takes to be one.