MASON — Lakota East girls basketball coach Dan Wallace gave a respectful tip of the cap to the other side of the Mason Middle School gymnasium.
“Beating Rob Matula has been so freaking hard my entire career,” he said. “The dude is a legend.”
Madison Parrish scored a game-high 16 points and the third-ranked Mason Comets surged ahead in the second half to claim a 44-39 victory over the Thunderhawks, giving their head coach one final regular season win that secured the Greater Miami Conference title outright on Saturday afternoon.
“He does a lot of good things,” Wallace said of Matula, who announced in December that he is retiring at the end of this season. “His kids play with such great control. His kids have discipline, and they understand their actions.”
Matula is wrapping up a high school basketball coaching career that started in 1988. He’s been a head coach for 26 years, including two seasons as a boys basketball head coach at Talawanda (1999-2001) and four seasons at Sycamore (2001-05).
Matula, who was honored prior to tipoff Saturday, has led Mason to three regional titles including Division I state runner-up finishes in 2022 and 2016. Mason has also won 10 district titles.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Matula said before getting emotional. “But you know. I think many, many moons ago I kind of gave up on caring too much about the wins and the losses and the championships. It was more about all those kids that were behind me at the beginning. It was good to see them. That’s what’s more important to me.
“I told the kids to look up and they’re going to put 2024 up there for the league championship. What we didn’t want is that little asterisk or star next to it — because that means you shared it with somebody. That was our mantra the last couple of days.”
Matula said the pregame emotions had shaken him up as he prepared to coach his final time on Mason’s floor while being surrounded by family, former players and a large crowd.
“I was a mess,” he said wiping away a tear. “I can’t remember the first player I saw. But it’s the sacrifices they made. I’m not easy to get coached by. So, seeing those kids and what they did for our program — it was pretty emotional. I’m lucky.”
Celina Blount scored all of her 13 points — including three 3-point buckets — to help Lakota East take an 11-8 lead into the second quarter and a 22-16 advantage into the halftime break.
“I thought our kids knew the scouting report,” Wallace said. “Our defense was phenomenal. We executed really well. I thought there were some questionable calls that went one way or the other, but that happens every single game. We missed free throws — and 30% at the line in close games won’t do it. We had opportunities.”
The Thunderhawks (14-8, 13-3 GMC) built their largest lead at 25-16 out of the third-quarter gate, but that’s when Mason began to march back. Parrish scored 14 of her points in the second half to help the Comets go on an 11-1 surge.
Mason (20-2, 15-1 GMC) outscored Lakota East 17-9 in the fourth quarter.
“I feel bad for our kids because I feel like they worked really hard every day to put themselves in that position,” Wallace said. “That’s two years in a row we tried to win this league. It’s tough that you have to try and do it at their place two years in a row. … But I’m really happy for Rob specifically to go out his last game with a win and go out with a GMC championship — which is really cool.
“I thought our kids had made enough plays. There were just a couple that didn’t go our way that I thought were huge momentum plays.”
Anna Habra scored nine points and had six rebounds for Mason, which plays Colerain in the first round of the Division I tournament on Saturday, Feb. 20, at 11 a.m. at Lakota East.
Brooke Asher went 4 of 8 from beyond the arc to score a game-high 15 points for the Thunderhawks, who face the winner of Talawanda and Withrow on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 5:30 p.m. at Middletown.