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River Ridge girls can’t overcome injury, powerful foe

Brandi Willard, playing with a torn meniscus, has to sit out the second half against Palm Bay Heritage.
River Ridge coach Joeyn Dearsman says Thursday's loss doesn't "take away anything, for me, for having a successful season and winning that district championship.” [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
River Ridge coach Joeyn Dearsman says Thursday's loss doesn't "take away anything, for me, for having a successful season and winning that district championship.” [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]
Published Feb. 14
Updated Feb. 14

NEW PORT RICHEY — Losing to its rival in the district tournament put a dent in Palm Bay Heritage’s travel budget, but it also put one in River Ridge’s hopes of getting past the first round.

“They’re a heck of a team. I wasn’t planning on playing them, I’ll tell you that,” said River Ridge coach Joeyn Dearsman.

Her concerns for a difficult matchup were well-founded, and proven out quickly Thursday in the Class 5A, Region 2 quarterfinals. Heritage scored the game’s first seven points while jumping ahead 14-2 and never looking back, ending River Ridge’s season by a final of 60-29.

Heritage (22-6) was upset in its district final by rival Palm Bay, costing the Panthers the luxury of being at home for the playoffs. Instead it was a three-hour bus ride across the state to play a Knights team, that though seeded ahead of Heritage as a district champ, was actually 150 spots below the Panthers in the overall state rankings.

And the recent winners of 13 in a row showed why with a collection of skill, intensity on the glass, athleticism and outside shooting. Heritage hit right on 50 percent of its first-half shots including 5-of-10 from distance with Paxton Krenz making three herself. Fellow senior Nubia Benedith scored 11 in a first half that saw the visitors lead 37-11.

River Ridge, which had a tremendous shooting night Friday in taking the district title, was 3-for-22 in the half, missing all nine attempts in the second quarter. Many were layups, including one uncontested after a steal.

As soon as we don’t hit those (early) shots... everything’s worse when you’re missing shots. And (Heritage) came out fired up, chip on their shoulder because they got upset," Dearsman said.

It wasn’t for lack of trying from senior standout Ices Utegg, who was able to drive into the paint consistently, only to have shots rim out. She settled for 16 points on 5-of-19 shooting.

“Usually at the beginning of games we start slow, but this was a game where it was just hard to buy a bucket,” Utegg said. “We tried to slow down the game, and that’s how we came back in the second half a little bit.”

The Knights (16-13) actually did well to trail just 20-7 after the first quarter but Heritage again scored the first seven of the second period for the big halftime cushion. Though the Knights were only outscored by five the rest of the way, a running clock was instituted when the margin hit 58-23 with five minutes remaining.

Making things even tougher for River Ridge was the second-half absence of No. 2 scorer Brandi Willard, finally taken down by a troublesome right knee.

Dearsman revealed that Willard has been playing with a torn meniscus since hurting it against Tarpon Springs on Jan. 14, and she decided to gut it out the rest of the way. She wanted to do the same Tuesday but a trainer tested her out at halftime and would not allow Willard to return.

“I really didn’t want to sit out, I wanted to keep playing. I was going for a layup and I slid, and that kind of triggered the pain more because my knee kind of went inward,” she said. “Then later I went up for a block, and when I came down my knee popped. I tried to walk it off and it hurt even more, then tears started coming to my eyes and I thought, ‘Maybe I do need to take a little break.’”

Utegg (24 points per game) played with incredible effort, throwing her body around and hitting the deck hard several times; in fact, she had to sit out a few minutes in the third quarter before returning to score nine final points.

But she was in good spirits afterward, knowing that she and several teammates still have playing futures ahead of them, and that Thursday’s opponent was just too strong.

Another senior, Caileigh Sheldon, finished with five points and three steals. Utegg led in rebounds with six.

Heritage won its third straight region opener, but now doesn’t have to face the team that has knocked it out the past two years in the semis — namely Dillard, last year’s 7A state champ that no longer is in the same region.

On Thursday, Heritage gathered a dozen offensive rebounds, including a 6-0 advantage in the third quarter, and turned over the Knights 17 times. Armani Sheffield had five steals herself in the first quarter, and the 5-foot-4 guard actually led her team in rebounds (7). The Panthers finished with four in double figures led by Benedith (13). Super sub Kelli Howard scored 12 alongside Krenz, and 5-10 freshman Shanice Walton popped for 10.

"Obviously they’re very physical and beat us on the boards,” Dearsman said. “But it doesn’t take away anything, for me, for having a successful season and winning that district championship.”

Region semifinals

Games at 7 p.m. Tuesday

7A: No. 4 North Port at No. 1 Plant

6A: No. 4 Strawberry Crest at No. 1 Winter Haven

6A: No. 3 St. Cloud at No. 2 Tampa Bay Tech

5A: No. 4 Cape Coral at No. 1 Jefferson

4A: No. 4 Lakewood at No. 1 Cocoa

4A: No. 6 Eustis at No. 2 Wesley Chapel

3A: No. 5 Brooks DeBartolo at No. 1 Carrollwood Day

3A: No. 3 Benjamin at No. 2 Seffner Christian

2A: No. 5 Donahue Catholic at No. 1 Keswick Christian

2A: No. 3 First Baptist at No. 2 Hernando Christian

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