Lou Nickel kept Watkins Memorial afloat in the first half Saturday.
The senior guard’s teammates picked up the slack in the second, and the Warriors made coach Jayme Gates a winner in her first game. Nickel scored 26 points in Watkins’ 55-39 nonleague victory against visiting Licking Heights in front of a spirited season-opening crowd.
“The girls started backing off because of the foul situation they were in,” Nickel said. “I took advantage of that.”
Nickel has terrorized Heights since beating the Hornets with a shot in the final seconds during her freshman season. Nickel finished 4-0 in the city rivalry, scoring 14 of her team’s 19 first-half points. Watkins stayed within reach of Heights despite missing its first 17 shots from the floor.
The rest of the Warriors joined the party in the third quarter. Six players scored for Watkins as the Warriors outscored Heights 20-3 to pull away from a halftime tie.
“We talked about looking to be scorers,” Gates said. “We didn’t want them just throwing the ball up. In the first half, we were just tossing it up and hoping. They played a little bit of zone in that first half, and we didn’t attack it. In the second half, we looked for our shots. They are started falling, and that got some momentum for us.”
As Watkins scored, Heights self-destructed. The Hornets beat a path to the foul line in the first half, but they could not get into their offense in the third quarter. They committed eight turnovers and only had two free throws.
“I told our girls whoever wins the third quarter — takes the ball aggressively to the basket — will win the game,” Heights first-year coach Tay Tufts said. “In the first half, we shot entirely too many jumpshots. We needed to take the ball to the basket. The message was clear, but we came out in the third quarter and shot six 3-pointers.”
Kiki Welker assisted on Vicki Smith’s basket to open the third, and Monica Foutty and Brittany Bronder followed with quick hoops. Nickel assisted on an Olivia Kuhn basket, and she and Foutty each had putbacks during a 16-0 run to open the quarter.
Watkins routinely beat Heights in transition, allowing its athleticism to take charge. Kuhn came off the bench to score 10 points, including two 3-pointers.
“(Gates) said we had to come out with intensity and stop fouling,” Kuhn said. “Transition is more of my pace.”
Deja Scott had 10 rebounds and Vicki Smith added seven as Watkins held a 49-41 edge. Bronder had four blocks as she stuffed the stat sheet as usual.
Freshman post player Ashley King finished with 11 points and 16 rebounds to lead Heights. Courtney Jones added eight points, and point guard Dameras Whitlock had seven points and four assists. She, however, was limited after picking up her fourth foul on a charge during the final second of the first half.
Kuhn was a part of an impressive turnaround for the Watkins soccer team the past two seasons. She is hoping this victory can get the ball rolling in a positive direction on the court.
“I like big crowds. It gets me pumped up,” Kuhn said. “We just have to stay as a team and cooperate just like we do in soccer.”