No Three-Peat: Ambridge stuns Lady ’Canes
Ambridge (46) Vs. New Castle (43)
By RON PONIEWASZ JR.
WEXFORD — The run at a third consecutive WPIAL championship came to a screeching halt last night for New Castle High.
The Lady ’Canes never got the tempo in their favor and Ambridge took advantage.
The Lady Bridgers’ deliberate style kept New Castle at bay, claiming a 46-43 decision in a Class AAA girls basketball semifinal game at North Allegheny.
The Lady ’Canes came in averaging 63.6 points a game, while Ambridge was scoring 52.2.
“I was hoping it would be more of a running game,” second-year New Castle coach Jason Rankin said. “We didn’t run nearly as much as I wanted us to run. I don’t know if it was fatigue or just not making up our mind to do it.
“I told my girls if we played in the high 30s or 40s, Ambridge is going to win. If we can get to 50, they can’t beat us because they don’t average that many points.”
Ambridge’s win avenged a pair of defeats against the section-rival Lady ’Canes. New Castle had wins of 67-42 and 49-35 over the Lady Bridgers in the regular season. It also snapped a five-game losing streak against the Lady ’Canes.
“They know us. We know them. It was great to get the win,” Ambridge coach Nikki Santiago said. “We don’t take it for granted; we got lucky and I absolutely think we’ll see them (in the state playoffs).”
“Our coach was telling us not to take them lightly just because we beat them two times already,” Lady ’Canes junior Christina Talbert said. “We just didn’t seem to have that mindset. They came out playing harder than us.”
The 11th-seeded Lady Bridgers (20-6) advanced to meet section rival Blackhawk (20-5) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center. The Lady Cougars disposed of top-seeded Indiana, 69-61.
Second-seeded New Castle (21-4) advances to the PIAA playoffs. The first round starts March 12, unless Blackhawk wins. If the Lady Cougars prevail, the Lady ’Canes will be the fourth-seeded team out of District 7 and will have to compete in a play-in game Tuesday against the City League runner-up.
If Ambridge claims the crown, New Castle will be the third seeded team out of the district and will open the state playoffs against the City League champion March 12.
“This (loss) will start to sink in when we start to look at who we will have to play in the first round of the state playoffs,” Rankin said. “It will be miserable for a few days because we had so much fun the last two years and we’ve done so many great things.
“We still have a state tournament to play and we may be a dangerous team coming out as the 7-3 or 7-4. We have nothing to lose.”
DIGGING A HOLE
Ambridge stretched a 32-27 lead after three quarters to 36-28 with 6:45 to play, and reached the one-and-one 21 seconds later. But the Lady Bridgers couldn’t take advantage, missing two consecutive front-ends just 44 seconds apart.
New Castle got to within 36-32 with 4:15 to play after Talbert stole the ball and went in for a layup. However, the Lady Bridgers quickly pushed the lead back to eight, which equaled their largest of the game, at 40-32, with 3:44 remaining.
“I wasn’t comfortable even though we were up eight points,” Santiago said. “I said there’s too much time on the clock, they can still come back.”
Though the hopes of a comeback seemed slim, New Castle began to quickly chip away. Ja’Nia McPhatter scored five points and LaShauna Brothers added a pair as the Lady ’Canes used a 7-1 run to narrow the deficit to 41-39 with 2:55 to play.
“We haven’t played the halfcourt trap all year very well,” Rankin said. “Then we played it well a couple of possessions and it just caught us again where somebody did something wrong; somebody was supposed to be in a place where they weren’t.”
The teams traded buckets and Ambridge’s Rachel Deiter misfired on a 3-pointer with 1:10 left and teammate Erin Smith corralled the rebound. Smith’s board drew the ire of the Lady ’Canes’ faithful, including Rankin.
“Literally, I could see her with two hands in the back pushing,” Rankin said of Smith. “I was very unhappy with a lot of non-calls in situations.”
The rebound was critical because Ambridge was able dribble time off the clock, eventually getting fouled with 41.9 to play. Sam Santiago, the coach’s daughter, calmly buried a pair of freebies for a 45-41 advantage.
DOWN THE STRETCH
Brothers had two attempts from behind the arc on the Lady ’Canes’ next possession but she was off the mark on each try. Katie Fischer got the rebound for Ambridge and she promptly was fouled with 15.6 seconds to play.
Many of the New Castle players were walking to the other end dejected, most of them nearly in tears. Fischer missed the first foul shot and Rankin burned his fourth timeout. Fischer tossed in the next shot after the 30-second break for a 46-41 margin.
“I thought there were a couple of times that we lost our composure,” Rankin said.
Brothers had another good look from the perimeter, but was off the mark and Kayla Haslett secured the carom with six seconds to go. But McPhatter swooped in, stole the ball and glided in along the baseline for a layup to close to within 46-43 with 4.5 seconds to go.
Rankin, who typically saves his timeouts for crucial moments in the game’s waning moments, spent his last one following McPhatter’s bucket. He drew up a perfect defensive play and the Lady ’Canes tipped the inbound pass away, but the officials gave the ball back to Ambridge.
Haslett immediately was fouled with 2.8 seconds remaining, but she missed both shots, leaving the Lady ’Canes with one final chance. Brothers grabbed the board, took a couple of dribbles and launched a heave that fell short at the horn, prompting the Ambridge fans to start a wild celebration.
“In the second half, we just wanted it more; we wanted to win,” Sam Santiago said. “The fact that we didn’t beat them in the regular season made it that much more fun.”
New Castle started sluggish, committing a turnover on each of its first three possessions without attempting a shot. The Lady ’Canes held a 6-4 lead after one quarter despite forcing seven Lady Bridgers turnovers.
“I think they settled down some and I think they were ready for some of the traps,” Rankin said. “(Nikki) put in a decent scheme to get us from trapping as the game wore on and they gained confidence.”
Said Nikki Santiago, “We started off slow, too. We made a lot of mistakes. A slow start is typical of us.”
McPhatter netted a game-high 17 points for the Lady ’Canes and Brothers added eight.
Smith tallied 14 markers and 10 rebounds for the Lady Bridgers and Sam Santiago chipped in with 13 markers.