But the Crimson Flashes didn’t look like big underdogs Saturday night. They went toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Lady Red before falling 49-42 in a Division II district championship game at Galion High School.
With the win, Bellevue advanced to Tuesday’s 7 p.m. regional semifinal at Mansfield Senior’s Pete Henry Gymnasium, where it will face Bay Village Bay (19-6).
On Saturday, Willard (20-5) trailed by four points at halftime and faced the same deficit three times in the fourth quarter, including when Lydia Wiers scored off an assist from McKenna Stephens to pull the Flashes to within 41-37 with 4:58 to play.
The Flashes got no closer, though, as they spent most of the second half on defense chasing dependable Bellevue guard Casey Santoro after the Lady Red spread the floor and ran clock.
“I think they believed they could win,” Willard coach Jon Dawson said of his team. “I think early in the season they weren’t really sure how good they could be. I think they’ve really come together and did a nice job of competing and giving Bellevue everything we could.”
Willard stayed in the game despite committing 10 turnovers in a choppy first quarter. The Flashes settled down and gave it away only eight times in the final three periods.
“It started with handling the pressure better and taking care of the basketball,” Dawson said. “There were still plenty of times where we abandoned (point guard) Layla (Dials) out there or whoever had the ball. We still didn’t take good care of it but it was way better than last time.”
“I thought they did pretty well against our press, for the most part,” Bellevue coach Kory Santoro said. “They had some fast-break layups that I wasn’t very pleased with. I thought they came in and played us tough.”
Cassidy Crawford led Willard (20-5) with 15 points while Wiers added 13 in her final game with the Flashes. Sophomore Presley Feltner made an impact with seven points and 10 rebounds.
Crawford’s 3-pointer from the right wing cut Bellevue’s lead to 25-24 two minutes into the second half. After senior Chloe Wiers buried a 3-pointer midway through the quarter to pull Willard within 28-26, Bellevue scored eight straight points on a Payton Vogel drive and 3s by Gabby Turner and Riley Mohr.
The Lady Red took the air out of the ball for much of the game and took only two shots from the field in the fourth quarter as Casey Santoro dribbled time off the clock. She made 8 of 12 free throws in the final eight minutes to keep the Flashes at bay.
“When you got a kid who can handle the ball like she does it makes it awfully tough to play from behind,” Dawson said. “We kind of weathered the storm a little bit. We would run somebody at her and force them into a couple mistakes or quick shots and we cut it to one. We just couldn’t get over the hump and they’d hit a big shot.
“They kept being able to be in that situation where we just couldn’t get enough to put the pressure on them where they had to hurry up,” he added.
Casey Santoro led Bellevue with 23 points. Turner added 10 and Cory Santoro finished with seven. It was only the third time this season that the Lady Red finished with fewer than 50 points.
“We knew there were six team fouls (on Willard) with about five minutes to go,” Kory Santoro said of Bellevue’s deliberate style. “We’ve done this a lot in my time here. We’ve taken three or four minutes off the clock in one possession and I knew we could do it and they would foul and we’d get to the free-throw line.
“We missed four free throws down the stretch that we normally don’t do. I’m just happy we hung on to win the game,” he added.
Willard answered Bellevue’s swarming full-court pressure by throwing the ball over the press, using its height to convert a few easy layups in the second half. But in the end, the Lady Red’s quickness and ball-handling were more than an equalizer.
Bellevue’s tournament experience didn’t hurt, either. The Lady Red have won five district titles in the past six years.
“You have to know that everything’s going to be OK,” Casey Santoro said about playing in tight games. “Basketball’s a game of runs so you have to know it’s going to be OK.
“If you don’t have experience sometimes you’re freaking out, you don’t know what to do. But our team this, when we were stalling the ball nobody’s jacking up shots with 10 seconds left. We were still passing it so we could get the last shot.”
Willard lost five games this season — four to the regional-bound Lady Red and Margaretta (23-2), and Hilliard Darby (19-6). Dawson will say goodbye to three seniors — Lydia and Chloe Wiers, and Jena Adams.
“Losing three seniors is going to hurt us,” he said. “Lydia’s been with me for four years. She does a lot for us. Really good kid and just incredible to coach her for four years.
“When she came in as a lanky little freshman all she did was defend the other team’s best player. It’s been fun to watch her grow into a young woman who has become such an incredible athlete. She’s had an incredible career for us.”
Layla Dials 1-0—2, Chloe Wiers 2-0—5, Cassidy Crawford 5-2—15, Lydia Wiers 6-1—13, Presley Feltner 3-0—7. TOTALS 17-3—42.
Cory Santoro 3-0—7, Gabby Turner 4-0—10, Payton Vogel 1-2—4, Casey Santoro 6-9—23, MacKenna Davis 0-1—1, Riley Mohr 1-1—4. TOTALS 15-13—49.
Willard 7 11 10 14 — 42
Bellevue 14 8 15 12 — 49
3-point FGs: (W) C. Wiers, Crawford 3, Feltner; (B) Cory Santoro, Turner 2, Casey Santoro 2, Mohr