By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Kate Koval did not hold back on Friday.
When you talk about playing at GEICO High School Nationals, you are gathering the best of the best teams and usually players. But Koval entered the event’s pantheon.
Whenever second-seeded Long Island Lutheran (Brookville, N.Y.) needed points, rebounds or reason to protect the rim, the 6-foot-5 junior giant from Ukraine was there.
Koval’s 38 points and 16 rebounds were a double-double. Her points were the most in the history of the GEICO Nationals since its inception in 2008.
Mostly the Crusaders were grateful because they were able to hold off feisty, third-seeded McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.), 76-65, at the GEICO High School Nationals girls’ semifinals inside the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State University.
The Crusaders, who won the New York State Federation Class AA title last weekend, advanced to Saturday’s championship game against top-seeded Monteverde (Fla.) Academy. LuHi improved to 21-2.
The Eagles from Maryland, a force to be reckoned with in the comings, closed the term with a 23-3 and the IAAM Conference A championship.
Without question, Koval’s height was a nuisance to the smaller, quicker guard oriented Eagles. Koval flipped in 18 points by the break and 20 more in the final 16 minutes. She controlled the boards and accounted for half of her team’s offensive output. She made 16 of 21 shots and 6 of 7 from the charity stripe.
“It’s never about the points and rebounds but the team and getting the win,” said Koval, who is an honors student with several high-major college offers.
Sylva Swords added 13 points and six assists in the win.
McDonogh’s Ava McKennie scored a team-high 17 and snared nine rebounds while teammates Autumn Fleary and Paris Locke added 16 apiece. The Eagles were outmatched and outscored in the paint, 46-30, or the difference in the outcome.
LuHi finally gained footing in the fourth quarter.
Koval’s two made free throws stretched LuHi’s edge to 12 points, 62-50, early in the fourth. Heckel’s transition layup with 5 ½ minutes left pushed the lead to 15 points. The Crusaders were cruising.
The Eagles refused to go away. They were down 58-50 through three quarters and every time LuHi made a run to put the game out of reach, the Eagles’ speedy guards kept pestering their opponent. Koval added 12 points in the period to pace LuHi. McKennie entered the fourth with 15 points and four personal fouls as did teammate Anaiah Jenkins.
That foul trouble was a result of doubling Koval down low.
Kayleigh Heckel’s driving layup and free throw completed a traditional three-point play at 3:26, giving the Crusaders a nine-point cushion at 49-40. The Crusaders added to their lead feeding Koval inside, where she was simply a size nightmare to guard.
Koval’s layup with 35 seconds bumped the lead to four points. Savannah Swords then gave the Crusaders a 36-29 edge at the intermission, swishing a 3-pointers from the top of the circle. Koval was a handful with 18 points on 8 of 10 shooting and clearing nine rebounds. At 6-5, the Ukrainian post was a mismatch in the post.
“We came out slow today. We couldn’t guard and thankfully we had Katie here. We absolutely knew was a height mismatch and wanted to take advantage of it,” LuHi coach Christina Raiti said afterwards.
McKennie scored 11 points for the Eagles, who outscored 22-10 in the paint and shot 10 of 27 from the floor and only 3 of 9 from the arc.
The game was tied five times with two lead changes in the opening half.
After trailing for the opening 12-plus minutes, the Eagles tied the game at 25 on Locke’s basket at 2:23.
The first quarter was entertaining and wide open as both teams preferred the playing up-tempo. LuHi held a 19-17 as Koval dropped 10 points and the Crusaders shot 8 of 17 from the floor. McDonogh’s Fleary and McKennie scored seven apiece.