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Massillon Jackson pulls off comeback over Anthony Wayne, advances to OHSAA Division I regional final

Meg Campbell led the Polar Bears with 25 points, while Madison Lepley scored 20

SANDUSKY, Ohio - Massillon Jackson players just couldn't find the words on Wednesday night, some 20 minutes after the final buzzer had sounded on their 55-50 win over Anthony Wayne in the OHSAA Division I regional semifinals.

And with good reason, as Jackson erased a 10-point halftime deficit en route to the win.

"I'm really speechless right now," Jackson senior Meg Campbell said, still exhausted from playing nearly the entire 32 minutes.

When asked to describe her emotions as the final horn sounded, Jackson senior Ashley Lahmers echoed her fellow senior.

"Speechless, I couldn't even believe it," Lahmers said.  

For Jackson to make the comeback, they needed the help of both those seniors, along with a few others.

The comeback really started with sophomore Madison Lepley to end the third quarter.

With Jackson trailing 40-34 after a pair of Campbell free throws, Lepley stole the ball and raced to the other end for a layup just before time expired to fire up the Polar Bears and cut the lead to four.

Lepley scored to open the fourth quarter and then gave Jackson a 41-40 lead with a 3-pointer, the first time the Polar Bears had led since 10-9 late in the first quarter. She scored 20 points and this was the first game she had not been the team's leading scorer in the postseason.

"She's carried us offensively this entire tournament," Jackson head coach Anthony Butch said. "The level that she's jumped to as a sophomore from the beginning of the year to right now is unbelievable. And she is in the gym every day. She never stops."

After Elise Bender scored to give Anthony Wayne the lead back, Campbell drove to the basket, was fouled and made the shot. Even though she missed the free throw, Jackson grabbed an offensive rebound and Lahmers scored to make it 45-42.

Leah Pike hit a 3-pointer to tie the game for Anthony Wayne, but Campbell drained a 3-pointer from about 25 feet to give Jackson the lead back with 3:15 left. Campbell had been battling the flu all week but still led the Polars Bears with 25 points, including the long-range triple late in the game when she was fatigued.

"She didn't really practice coming into the game and we knew she wasn't going to be 100 percent," Butch said. "But game was on the line. She had that NBA three and she's been doing it all year."

However, Brooke Bender had an answer for the Generals and tied the game with a 3-pointer of her own. Brooke led Anthony Wayne with 17 points.

But Campbell hit a pair of free throws with 58.6 seconds remaining to give Jackson a 50-48 lead, and freshman Ashley Helle drew a charge on Elise Bender with 44.6 seconds left that fouled Bender out of the game.

"I just thought to myself I got this," Helle said. "I saw it coming and thought alright, I have five charges in the season. I gotta just sit down and just take it and everybody just went crazy."

When asked about the play of his freshman, Jackson's head coach wasn't surprised as he had seen her play against seniors on the tennis court in the fall. But he gave the 5-foot-5 Helle one of the greatest compliments there is when it comes to Jackson basketball.

"We were just talking about this the other day about her poise and big moments and somebody asked me if I had ever seen a freshman with poise like that," Butch said.  "I said, yeah, her name was Taylor Mikesell. And on a stage like this, this is what Taylor did. Her freshman year took us to the regional finals. And to step in, no freshman does that. I mean, seriously, so unbelievable."

Jackson players celebrate after defeating Anthony Wayne in the OHSAA Division I regional semifinals on March 6, 2024.

Jackson players celebrate after defeating Anthony Wayne in the OHSAA Division I regional semifinals on March 6, 2024.

Jackson finished the game off at the free throw line, making five of their final six to ice it. 

Lahmers was the defensive stalwart as she has been for the Polar Bears all season, constantly drawing the assignment on some of the best players around. Wednesday, it was Elise Bender, the Ohio Ms. Basketball finalist who was in front of Lahmers and the 5-foot-10 Lahmers held the 6-foot-1 Bender to just 14 points, nine under her season average.

"Our regular season had her ready for tonight," Butch said. "We played Naomi Benson (of Streetsboro), (Saniyah Hall) from Laurel, Jenna Slates (of Green) and we call her the D-I killer. She has shut down D-I kids all year. Elise Bender is a finalist for Ms. Basketball for a reason. She's one of the best players we played against this year. And the effort that she gave on her defensively was next level."

The win for Jackson sets up a game with Olmsted Falls on Saturday, March 9 at 1:00 pm for a the regional title and a spot in the state semifinals.

It didn't look like that would be the case after two quarters, however. And while the players were speechless after the game, their head coach had plenty of words to say in the locker room when they were down 26-16 at the half.

"The first half was a disaster, like an absolute disaster," Butch said. "And the body language was poor and at halftime, I just said you have come too far to fold against a team that we can play with. It was a very passionate halftime speech."

 His final thought before the second half started was a simple one.

"This team is too damn fun to coach to go out like this," Butch said. 

-- Ryan Isley | | @sbliveoh