By Cort Reynolds

Ada Herald writer

LIMA - Ada senior Taylor Willeke converted the winning drive with 50 seconds left and classmate Morgan Rouch stole the ball in the waning seconds to preserve a see-saw 44-43 Bulldog victory at Lima Central Catholic in a crucial Northwest Conference girls basketball battle Thursday night.

Willeke's clutch short right-side runner off glass provided the eighth lead change of the second half. LCC then turned the ball over on a double dribble violation with just 12 seconds to go. Yet Ada missed the front end of a one-and-one foul shot, giving the Thunderbirds one last-ditch chance after they rebounded and hurried upcourt for a potential game-winning shot.

But defensive ace Rouch thwarted the last-ditch opportunity.

Ada improved to 9-6 and 4-1 in league play with the big win, while LCC fell to 7-7 and 2-3. The victory lifted the Bulldogs into a second-place tie in the league standings at 4-1 with Bluffton, which lost 54-52 to Allen East Thursday.

The Bulldogs are in strong contention for their first NWC title in 30 years as they trail only sole league leader Crestview, who is 5-0. The Knights handed Ada its lone league loss in the conference opener.

The Bulldogs trailed for the first 14 minutes of play at LCC's Herr Gymnasium, but hung close. The visitors took their first lead when Willeke stole the ball and drove the length of the floor for a three-point play and a 21-20 edge with two minutes left before intermission.

LCC took the lead right back on a Verhoff three-pointer 20 seconds later and held a 23-21 edge at the break.

The T-Birds started half two with another trey by Meredith Shepherd, but then Ada sophomore Tori Wyss took over. She knocked down a triple at the 6:33 mark and hit a two-point goal to tie it 26-all.

Rouch's 15-foot baseline shot gave the visitors a 28-26 lead briefly, but again Shepherd responded with a trifecta and a drive to regain the lead 31-28.

Willeke canned a left wing banker, then stole the ball and converted a southpaw layin to put Ada back in front 32-31. T-Bird Kayla Verhoff scored inside and on a foul shot as LCC snatched the lead back 34-32 with eight ticks left in the third period.

Ada then finished the quarter with a momentum-changing flourish as Alexis Amburgey drained a three-point goal just before the buzzer to give the purple and gold a slim 35-34 lead.

Two Willeke free throws early in the final stanza were offset by a pair of Sydney Santaguida charity stripers moments later. Wyss split a pair at the seven-minute mark to make it 38-36, Ada.

LCC tied it on a basket by Sydney Mohler, then went ahead on a left wing triple by Santaguida.

Alexis Gonzaga pulled the Bulldogs within one on a key shot from the left elbow with 3:01 remaining. A left baseline deuce by Shepherd gave LCC a three-point bulge at the 2:40 juncture, and Wyss inched Ada within one with two foul shots 20 seconds later.

The T-Birds missed a critical shot after they broke the Bulldog press, and Ada rebounded with about a minute left. Willeke then drove in for her game-winning shot.

LCC held a slight lead early but Ada tied it at 7-7 on a basket by freshman Sidney Faine. The T-Birds surged in front 11-7 before Bulldog sophomore post Lindsay Walden scored on a stickback.

Shepherd splashed a trey and Wyss canned a putback, but Mohler's shot from the elbow put LCC ahead 16-11 after one period.

Another 15-footer by Mohler to open the second stanza gave the hosts their biggest lead of the night, 18-11. Willeke canned a basket and Wyss added three foul shots to pull Ada within 20-16.

Wyss then powered her way to a layup inside off an in-bounds play to halve the deficit. Willeke followed with her traditional three-point play moments later to give Ada its first lead of the night and cap a 10-2 run.

Wyss and Willeke led the victors with 15 points apiece. Shepherd topped LCC with 15 markers. The Bulldogs outscored the Thunderbirds 33-27 over the final three periods to win their last meeting as NWC foes. LCC is leaving the league after this school year.

1 2 3 4 F

Ada 11 10 14 9 44

LCC 16 7 11 9 43

Ada hosts tough non-league rival McComb Saturday afternoon. The Lady Panthers are 11-4 after losing to defending state champion Arlington 51-43 Thursday night in a key BVC battle. The Red Devils edged Ada 55-54 back on Dec. 18 at Arlington.

The Bulldogs are 5-3 on the road and 4-3 at home this season.

Ada then hosts Bluffton (9-4, 4-1 NWC) in a key league showdown between the two second-place sharers Thursday, Jan. 24. A loss will likely eliminate the loser from championship contention.