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Opinion: Why Fairland's Bailey Russell had the best performance at OHSAA girls basketball state tournament

The Fairland sophomore handled herself with class and dignity after a state semifinal loss

DAYTON, Ohio - There was some really good basketball played this past weekend at the Ohio High School Athletic Association's girls basketball state tournament at the University of Dayton Arena.

I covered each of the 12 games and even put together a list of the top performers from those games for fans to vote on. That list consisted of players from each team, four players who were on the list of Ohio Ms. Basketball finalists, including two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball Dee Alexander of Purcell Marian. 

But there was one performance not on that list, and it was the most impressive of the weekend. 

The thing is that it didn't happen in front of the crowd on the basketball court, rather in a room in front of a small gathering of media members on Friday afternoon.

After each of the games, the OHSAA has the coach from each team and a couple of their players come back to the press conference room to speak with the media.  During the state semifinals, it is tradition for the winning team to come to the media room first, followed by the losing team.

So after Laurel head coach Terrina Robinson and her players left the podium following their win over Fairland in the Division II state semifinals on Friday, we awaited the group from Fairland, which we all assumed would be head coach Jon Buchanan and seniors Bree Allen and Kylee Bruce, who were both on the nomination list for the McDonald's All-American Game this season.

Well, we were right on two of the three, as Buchanan and Allen made their way to the podium. But to everyone's surprise - mine included - the second player was sophomore Bailey Russell.

The surprise came because the last image I had of Russell was of a heartbroken kid, sitting on the free throw line, her arms wrapped around her knees and her head buried, while her teammates were trying to comfort her.

Just seconds before that, Russell had stepped to that same free throw line with 0.2 seconds remaining and the Dragons trailing by two. If she hits both shots, the game goes to overtime. Miss one or both and Laurel is headed to the state championship.

Fairland's Bailey Russell (No. 32) lets a 3-pointer fly in the state semifinals against Laurel on March 15, 2024.

Fairland's Bailey Russell (No. 32) lets a 3-pointer fly in the state semifinals against Laurel on March 15, 2024.

Talk about pressure.

The sophomore stepped to the line and calmly made the first one, the ball touching nothing but the net to cut the lead to one. But as she readied and shot the second, it was off from the start and hit the rim, bouncing away to the left, giving Laurel the win.

So that's why what this 16-year-old did in the aftermath of that moment stood out to me above all else in Dayton this past weekend. 

She picked herself up with the help of her teammates, cried, and then told her head coach she was ready to face the media and the questions that would undoubtedly come. And that question came pretty early, with the blond-haired 5-foot-9 guard handling it like a seasoned veteran.

"It's obviously hard,I felt really terrible," Russell said. "But we're very proud of this team and what we accomplished."

That's when Allen stepped up unprompted with support for her teammate.

"If we wanted anyone to shoot the shots, it would have been Bailey anyway," Allen said. "(We are) glad it was her and no one blames her for anything."

That love and support from Allen mirrored what we all saw when the game ended, as the entire team went over and bent down to put arms around their teammate and help her up, assuring her that it was going to be okay.

It is a moment that Russell will never forget.

"It really just shows how great our team is and how close we are," Russell said. "I would be so much more of a mess right now if I didn't have them. They all helped me, uplifted me and I can't thank them enough. It's just amazing. They're not mad at me and that helps a lot."

That's when Buchanan also had the back of his young player.

"If we had a technical foul in the game, Bailey would be the one shooting the free throws, so it's not like we had the wrong shooter," Buchanan said. "But people miss sometimes. It happens."

The head coach then went on to explain that just because that was the final play of the game, it wasn't the reason the Dragons lost. 

"We talked about it in the locker room," Buchanan said. "Calls that I make that don't work affect the game, a turnover in the first quarter affects the game. Everything affects the game. Obviously something like a missed free throw gets magnified but we had the exact scenario that we wanted."

All the while, Russell sat to her coach's right and listened as her teammate and coach raised her up. And when it was her turn to talk, she did so flawlessly. No excuses, no 'no comment,' just how she felt. Pure emotion and truth. 

And if you are wondering why this is so impressive, that's pretty simple. 

As a 16-year-old, Russell did something we routinely see adult professional athletes not do - talk about their failures. She was given the option by her head coach to skip the media session and told him she would do it anyway. Imagine being that young, having one of the most disappointing moments of your athletic life to this point, and then you willingly face people asking you questions about what just happened while the emotions are still so raw.

I couldn't have done it when I was her age. In fact, I had a similar thing happen, even if on a much smaller scale.

During my junior season of high school baseball, we were in the conference semifinals. I was playing third base and a ball was hit slowly up the line. I barehanded it and threw off-balance to first base, but the ball was nowhere near its intended mark and pulled my first baseman down the line, where he collided with the hitter.

That error led to what wound up being the game-winning run in a one-run loss for us, ending our season.

Thankfully for me, this was 26 years ago and there were very few media outlets covering high school sports the way there are now. Because had some reporter come up to me after the game and asked about that throw, I would not have had the maturity of Bailey Russell and I would have either refused to answer or said something I would still regret to this day.

The one writer who was there didn't even include my name in the story, but instead just mentioned there was an error. I have always remembered that, how he didn't take the easy opportunity to label me as the one who made the mistake. 

And honestly, had Bailey Russell not been so comfortable talking on Friday after the game, I would have left her name out of the game story as well. 

But Bailey Russell did something I never imagined we would see, and for that she should be applauded. 

So while she might not have gotten a shiny medal placed around her neck or gotten to hoist a trophy this past weekend, Bailey Russell still left Dayton as a winner in my book. 

-- Ryan Isley | | @sbliveoh