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by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
Uniontown -- Kelsey Rice had just dribbled the ball past halfcourt when she got some unusual instructions from her head coach.
The Tallmadge senior point guard was told to throw the ball out of bounds.
Immediately after Rice hesitantly tossed the ball near the scorer's table, she was removed from the game.
Such a sight couldn't be a sweeter one for Lady Blue Devils' fans.
The Tallmadge girls basketball team reached Division II regional play for the first time since the 1998-99 season.
The second-seeded Lady Blue Devils advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after earning a convincing 53-39 victory over fourth-seeded Norton in a district title contest Feb. 28 at Lake High School in Uniontown.
Rice committed the turnover with about 10 seconds left in the game. She was the last starter to leave the floor. As Rice made her way to the bench, she got a huge ovation from Tallmadge fans and a hug from fourth-year head coach Bill Johnson.
"I just can't put it into words," Johnson said. "Jubilation is what I'm feeling. I'm happy, but I'm most happy for these girls who worked so hard throughout the season."
Just about everyone contributed in the win. But make no mistake about it, most of the credit goes to Rice and her senior teammates, forward Mary Ryan and Kirsten Lightel, who have been vital cogs for the Lady Blue Devils (17-8) during the last four years.
"There was absolutely no way our seniors we're going to let us lose this game," Johnson said.
Rice, a four-year starter, created the most problems for the Lady Panthers (14-12). She finished with nine points, nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
Since Rice joined the team four years ago, the Lady Blue Devils have won a lot of games. The latest victory may have been the sweetest one of her career.
"Coach Johnson talked about how Michael Jordan wouldn't lose this game," she said.
Rice, along with her two classmates, had the same attitude Feb. 28.
Ryan, who scored a total of 48 points in her first two tournament games, had 11 points and added five rebounds despite being in foul trouble. She also made all five of her free throw attempts.
After the game, Ryan embraced the moment. She also took time to appreciate her teammates.
"It's even better to share it with the people I love," Ryan said.
Lightel, the star pitcher on the softball team, made three 3-pointers and finished with 10 points. Although the softball season isn't far away, Lightel wasn't quite ready to trade her sneakers for spikes.
"Losing wasn't an option," she said.
Tallmadge led from start to finish. The Lady Blue Devils jumped out to a 12-4 lead and forced six turnovers after one quarter.
But Norton cut its deficit to a deuce (24-22) when Dayna Rabatin scored nearly halfway into the third quarter.
Nevertheless, Tallmadge responded with a 9-2 run and took command in the fourth quarter. The Lady Blue Devils outscored Norton 20-13 in the final eight minutes.
Junior forward Joanna Catalano led Tallmadge with 12 points and freshman guard Olivia Ayres added nine points for the Lady Blue Devils.
Brooke Robinson led the Lady Panthers with a game-high 16 points.
While five players did most of the scoring for Tallmadge, Johnson knows his team wouldn't reach this point without some crucial role players.
Junior forward Aliviah Chaplin and freshman guard Brin Stralka also gave the Lady Blue Devils a boost off the bench.
"Aliviah gave us huge minutes," Johnson said. "We needed her on the floor when Mary and Joanna got in foul trouble. There wasn't one person that didn't play well. One through 19, everyone has contributed to our success."
And everyone is enjoying each other's company. Again, that was the plan all along.
"When we came in as freshmen, coach enforced the family concept," Lightel said. "It has gotten better every year."
Like any family, though, there were some hard times. Fortunately, those hard times vanished long ago.
"We came together in the middle of the season," Rice said. "It wasn't that way in the beginning."
The "beginning" for the three seniors didn't include a district title. Now as their careers wind down, Rice, Ryan and Lightel are having the time of their life.
"We wanted to change the expectations for Tallmadge basketball," Ryan said. "To get this far has been the goal since the beginning."