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Girls' basketball summary
Wildcats upend 2-time league champion Juniata
By Janet Smeltz, CONTRIBUTING WRITER



Halifax's Kassidy Sorichetti cannot be stopped by Juniata's Julie Swartz (Sentinel photo by Lon Zeiders)

COVE • When Halifax played Juniata in regular season action, the Lady Wildcats suffered a 51-39 loss.

Going into the 2014-15 Tri-Valley Athletic  Association title game against the two-time league champions Indians, Halifax knew it  would have a battle to the end.

Led by the leadership of Seniors Morgan Cox and Paige Miller, the Cats executed and played a scrappy aggressive game that brought the energy level of their fans to epic proportions. 

In the end, it was Halifax claiming this year’s TVAA (aka TVL) title by a 57-52 score at Susquenita High School Feb. 12.

“In the first half I think we were just a little nervous and awe struck at the fact that we made it to the championship, and we were playing Juniata, who beat us in the regular season,’’ Cox said. ‘‘But by the second half we knew that it was our game and we needed to do what it took to win. We kicked it up and began playing together, and gelling really well. Our shots started to fall. Our ball handling got better, and we started to rebound more.

‘‘We all decided that we didn’t want anything more than we wanted to win that game, and we ignited a furious comeback. We played the second half like it was the last game we would play,’’ Cox said. ‘‘I wouldn't have wanted to be there in that game with any other team. We are pretty much like a family, and we all love each other. It was the greatest feeling ever at the end of the game and we just embraced each other and praised one another instead of praising ourselves as individuals.” 

“In the practice before the game, the coaching staff stressed protecting the ball, boxing out, and rebounding,’’ Head Coach Dean Kerstetter noted. ‘‘The girls did an excellent job of protecting the ball in this game, turning the ball over 15 times compared to 28 in the first meeting with Juniata.’’

In the first quarter, with Juniata pressing, Halifax struggled with turnovers and icy rims. In the meantime, shooting standouts Victoria Varner and Janelle Swartz unleashed two treys and Juniata led 11-5 after one frame.

In the second, Halifax became more settled, attacking on offense.  Paige Miller earned an inside bucket on a feed, then nailed a trey after Cox dove for a loose ball and threw it to Miller in a last ditch save attempt. 

Turnovers plagued both sides and Juniata struggled with shots falling through the iron. But Varner and Swartz made their free throws count, draining 11-for-14 from the charity stripe.

A baseline drive by Cox and a free throw by Paige Miller put the Cats within two (14-16). But just as quickly, a free throw and a trey at the wing by Varner extended the Indians lead to 23-16 with 1:50 remaining until halftime.

Paige Miller canned the front end of a one-on-one, missed her second free throw but scrapped for the rebound to earn an offensive put-back. Paige Miller drained another front end of a one-on-one, missed her second free throw, and teammate Julia Hoon snagged the rebound for another offensive put-back.  A buzzer beater by Rylee Duck gave the Indians a 29-24 halftime lead.

The Cats increased their intensity after the break as Cox – who had only scored two points the entire first half – scored 12 points in the third, earning an offensive putback immediately to set the tone as Juniata committed three straight turnovers. 

Brianna Turner’s offensive rebound pulled Halifax to within one (29-28). 

Just as quickly, Varner went coast-to-coast on a transition bucket, but Kassidy Sorichetti countered right back, connecting on a trey at the top of the key.  Varner then buried a trey, but Cox answered right back with a trey from the baseline to tie the game at 34-34 with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter. 

Duck sank two free throws and Swartz hit a 10 footer from the side, enabling the Indians to regain a 38-34 lead in what was becoming a physical and foul-plagued contest. 

A Cox feed from Turner was countered by a Varner shot from the top of the key. But Cox drained a trey to tie knot the game at 40-all  with 1:36 remaining. 

Two more Juniata turnovers turned into two drives by Paige Miller and Cox to give the Cats a 44-40 lead with :46 remaining.  Two blocks by Paige Miller on desperation shots by Juniata were met with a crowd pleasing roar that carried Halifax into the final quarter.

“Paige’s block of Varner’s buzzer beater attempt at the end of the third quarter got into her head, because we held her to two points in crunch time in the fourth quarter,’’ said Kerstetter.

The Lady Cats continued their aggressive play into the final quarter. Varner hit a 10 foot jumper. But Cox earned an offensive put-back, then fired away on the baseline, scorching the net for a crowd pleasing trey. The rattled Indians then committed three straight turnovers. Two blocks by Cox and Turner added to the excitement of the night for Halifax fans. 

With 3:32 remaining Brynn Miller drove to the bucket. Kendall Lehman threw a brilliant inbounds play to Cox, who scorched the net for two to give Halifax a 53-44 lead with 2:01 remaining.

Despite a gallant effort to stay within striking distance of the pumped-up Cats, Juniata was forced to foul Cox, who sank 3-for-4 from the charity stripe to seal victory for the Cats.

Cox, who had scored just six points against Juniata in their first encounter, scored 10 points in the final stanza and earned 24 for the night. She also grabbed seven rebounds along with two steals. Paige Miller finished with 16 points along with six rebounds and two blocked shots. 

The Lady Cats out-rebounded Juniata 43-33 and committed 24 team fouls, while Juniata committed 26. The Cats made 12-for-25 from the free throw line, while Juniata hit 18-for-28.

“Morgan Cox and Paige Miller came up huge in this championship game. Paige kept us close in the first half (13 of her 16 points) and Morgan just got in a zone in the second half (22 of her 24 points),’’ Kerstetter said. ‘‘This is what any coach expects from senior leadership in a big game.

‘‘Paige Miller did an excellent job on Juniata’s Victoria Varner, because she had to really work hard to get the ball as well as getting her shots off tonight and many were rushed,’’ he added. ‘‘At halftime, we told the girls that they need to hedge when Varner came off the screens, and I feel they did a much better job helping with the screens.  Although Varner scored 23 points, she had to really work for them.”

“Morgan not only scored for us during crunch time but she came up with some big rebounds in the game with seven, five of them offensive. Brianna Turner had a good night on the boards (11) as well as leading the team in assists (4).  Kendall Lehman gave us great minutes in the second half after Kassidy Sorichetti got into foul trouble, with 8 rebounds (4 offensively). Our team defense did an excellent job as we held Juniata six-percent below their season shooting percentage. 

‘‘As a whole, I am very excited and pleased with the entire team effort the last two games, to give Halifax their first girls’ basketball championship since 2005-06,’’ Kerstetter said. ‘‘What a week for the Halifax girl’s basketball program, where not many outsiders gave us much of a chance against both Susquenita and Juniata.  However, the coaching staff kept telling them that they were better than both teams, as long as we played together.’’

TVAA SEMIFINALS

Halifax 45, Susquenita 44, Feb. 10. Susquenita had defeated the Cats 55-45 during the season, and early on the Lady Blackhawks came out like a well-oiled machine and simply owned the first quarter of this game. 

While Halifax  players swarmed around Susquenita’s big girl, Miranda Hoover, denying her the ball and guarding her tightly, she still managed to break free to control the inside paint.

The first quarter found Susquenita scoring quickly, crashing the boards and controlling the inside paint.  The Cats attempted to play various zone defenses, along with a full court press. 

Despite numerous turnovers made by the Blackhawks, Halifax would not take advantage, lacking intensity and struggling for rebounds. The Lady Cats missed their first 11 shot attempts and would only hit 1-for-13 from the field.  Time and again, Susquenita scored on offensive put backs. Before the Cats knew what hit them, Susquenita led 14-2 after one quarter.

In the second, the Hawks continued to dominate the boards. While the Cats stayed in their zone, Susquenita chose to play a very slow deliberate and patient offense, wearing down the clock as well as the Cats. 

With 2:47 remaining, Sorichetti earned a pickpocket and went coast-to-coast, earning a three point play in the process.  Lehman then fed Turner inside and the Cats cut Susquenita’s  lead to 18-11 by the half.

“I told the girls they needed to come out and play with their hearts,’’ Kerstetter said. ‘‘At halftime, I told the girls that as badly as we shot in the first half we were only down by seven. The coaches told them that the intensity needed to be picked up. 

‘‘Our objective coming out of the locker room was to get a stop and score,’’ the coach added. ‘‘I told them that we needed to cut the lead in a little at a time – cut the lead to five, then three, then one. Once we got close to them, I saw the enthusiasm pick up, and I felt we were going to win.’’

The Cats left the locker room with increased intensity, making adjustments on defense, and challenging the Blackhawks immediately to force a turnover. 

With possession to Halifax, Sorichetti launched a trey at the top of the key, bringing the Halifax side of the gymnasium to life. Two more Susquenita turnovers were followed by a Sorichetti short jumper. 

Cox buried two free throws, and a Shannon Buggy-to-Hoon play found Halifax trailing by only 21-20 with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter. 

With the momentum in Halifax’s favor, a baseline drive by Brynn Miller knotted the contest, and the frenzy of baskets between both teams began.

Hoover scored eight points, including six down the stretch, with her relentless drives to the bucket, giving the Hawks a 30-29 lead after three quarters.

“Kassidy Sorichetti came up big for us with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals.  Her trey and jump shot inside the foul line early in the third cut the lead to two and from there on the game went back and forth,” said Kerstetter.

Hoover began the fourth quarter with another unstoppable drive in the paint.  A steal by Lindsay Nye turned into an easy coast-to-coast. Another Hoover bucket gave the Hawks a 36-33 lead with 5:26 remaining. 

Cox nailed a bucket to keep within striking distance. Paige Miller’s pickpocket and pass to Brynn Miller landed Miller two free throws. But two missed free throws and a tie up by Hoon inside put the ball in the Cats favor.  However, Hoover again drew another foul sinking both shots to lead 38-33 with 3:59 remaining. 

Hoon weaved her way inside the paint for an important bucket, but it was countered by Amber Siegfried’s drive through the lane. Sorichetti buried a crucial trey at the top of the key with 3:10 remaining and Halifax trailed by just two (40-38). 

Two more Susquenita turnovers produced no gold for the Cats. Another Brynn Miller baseline drive tied the contest at 40-40 with 2:20 remaining.

Halifax was forced to foul and Siegfried sank both free throws. While Halifax was intent on putting the maximum full court pressure they could muster,  Brittany Krick broke free and was found all by herself with an easy bucket giving Susquenita a 44-40 lead with 1:38 remaining. 

To make matters worse, a turnover gave possession back to the Blackhawks, who frantically tried to stall the ball. But a turnover returned possession to Halifax. 

With :56 remaining, Paige Miller found herself open for a split second on the baseline and drained a trey to pull within one point (44-43).

With :21 remaining, Krick was fouled and went to the foul line for two shots. She missed both, and Halifax pulled down the rebound with a pass going to Brynn Miller. Bolstered  by the fans’ energy, Miller went coast-to-coast and hit a crowd pleasing inside jumper to give Halifax the final lead and, ultimately, the semifinal victory.

“Susquenita did expand the lead to 5 in the fourth, but the girls kept working hard to stay within reach,’’ said Kerstetter. ‘‘The entire game, we were tied three times and led by one point three times (one of those at the final buzzer).’’

For the night, balanced scoring helped the Cats achieve victory. Sorichetti had 13 points, including nine in the second period along with seven rebounds, four steals and two assists. Brynn Miller contributed with eight points, two steals and two assists. 

Cox, Miller and Turner each added six points. Turner also grabbed six rebounds and had three blocked shots. Cox earned seven steals.  Halifax hit 5-for-7 free throws, while Susquenita hit 7-for-14.  Miranda Hoover finished the night with 20 points and nine rebounds for the Blackhawks.

“This was such big win for us, because we came back from a double-digit deficit as well as defeating a team which we lost to by 10 points two weeks ago,’’ Kerstetter said.

‘‘The girls never got down after going down by 12 after one quarter,’’ he added. ‘‘In every huddle after I finished giving them what we need to do, they kept encouraging each other,” he added.

“There were several key moments in the game to allow us to win this game,’’ Kerstetter said. ‘‘Changing from our 2-3 zone to man to pick up the pressure on their guards; Brianna Turner hitting the bucket right before half to give us momentum going to the locker room; Kassidy’s back to back buckets in the third quarter; Paige Miller’s two treys (one to give us our first lead in the third and the other to bring us to within one late in the fourth); Brynn Miller’s go ahead shot with seven seconds remaining in the game; and the steal by Morgan Cox by slapping the ball from behind into Paige’s hands as Susquenita’s point guard was heading to the top of the their key after Brynn’s made shot. Although we only had one girl in double figure, I was pleased with the balance scoring from the other girls.”

Juniata 53, Upper Dauphin 37, Feb. 10. The Lady Trojans could not control the offensive game of Victoria Varner who scored 22 points to help put the Indians into the championship round.

Juniata bolted out to a 21-6 first quarter lead, and the Trojans found it hard to come back, struggling with their offensive game. 

Taylor Brown led the Trojans with nine points. Laura Sweger grabbed seven rebounds to go with four points. Kelsey Hoffman had three blocked shots, and  Cam Koppenhaver and Hollen Bellis each had two blocked shots. Autumn Walker grabbed three rebounds. 

UDA ends its season with a 10-14 record.

ADDITIONAL GAMES

Williams Valley 50, East Juniata 38, Feb. 10. The Nestor sisters, Haley and Hannah, split 22 points in a non-league victory.  Rayanne Hawk added 10 points. 

The contest was close in the first half, with the Lady Vikings up by only 22-21.  A pair of treys by Hannah Nestor helped Williams Valley to expand its lead. 

With a  37-29 lead after three quarters, the Vikings outscored the Indians 13-9 down the stretch to seal the win.



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