INDIANA — The heat was up outside on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Pennsylvania, and North Allegheny made sure it was turned up inside the Indiana High School gymnasium in the evening.
North Allegheny’s pressure defense forced 25 State College turnovers, including 15 in the key first half, as the Lady Tigers ended the Lady Little Lions’ postseason run with a 58-44 triumph.
North Allegheny (24-2) will get a rematch of its WPIAL semifinal loss when it faces Hempfield in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals Friday. State College’s season ended at 18-8.
Lady Tigers coach Sherri McConnell calls her defense “intense.”
The pressure is man-to-man, but when the ball is forced to a corner or is picked up, her team traps. It led to numerous tipped balls and turnovers, totally disrupting State College’s offense.
“It’s something we focus the majority of our practice on every day since Day 1,” McConnell said. “We’ve told them from the beginning that defense is what gets the job done. Defense is what wins championships.”
It certainly worked Tuesday.
The Lady Little Lions couldn’t have started much worse against the pressure. State College missed its first eight shots and turned the ball four times as the Lady Tigers took an early 7-0 lead.
Ali Treglia got the Lady Little Lions back in the game. Her two baskets closed out the first quarter and made the score 9-6 and she opened the second quarter with a bucket to get the deficit to 9-8.
But, State College would never get closer as it wilted under the heat.
North Allegheny forced nine turnovers in the second quarter. Four of those led directly to baskets as the Lady Tigers started pulling away. Meg Morningstar’s drive with three seconds left gave North Allegheny a 28-13 lead at the half.
“Hats off to North Allegheny,” State College coach Bethany Irwin said. “Their defense was just tremendous. We couldn’t get the ball set. We couldn’t run any kind of set offenses. They just pressured an awful lot.”
Post players Kyla Irwin and Jalyn Shelton-Burleigh, who had led the Lady Lions’ in scoring throughout the postseason, struggled against the pressure, combining for just two field goals and five points at the break.
“They have a nice strong inside team,” McConnell said. “Our idea was to try to make them play a fullcourt game, put a lot of pressure on them and keep the ball out of the paint. We did a nice job of doing that and eventual we wanted to wear them down. I thought that was the key at the end of the first half.”
Bethany Irwin said her squad had faced similar pressure a couple of times in the regular season, but the Lady Tigers’ length was a problem. North Allegheny’s shortest starter was 5-foot-5 and McConnell brought in 6-foot-1 Morningstar off the bench.
“They were all just good size,” Irwin said. “You’ll play somebody that has a really quick point guard, but she’s like 5-foot-2 and you can throw over her. They anticipated well and matched up well. They rotated well. Their weakside defense was strong.”
The Lady Little Lions got off to a solid start in the second half climbing to within 32-21, but Abby Gonzalez and Morningstar combined for all of the points in a 9-0 run that pushed the lead to 41-21 with 3:20 left in the third quarter.
“We almost got it within 10,” Bethany Irwin said. “All of sudden I looked up and it was, ‘Oh my God, it’s 20.”
State College got a lift when Morningstar and Taylor Brennan picked up their fourth fouls late in the third quarter. With those two on the bench, the Lady Little Lions opened the final period with a 7-2 run. Bridget King’s bucket cut the lead to 46-34 and forced a North Allegheny timeout with 6:10 left.
But led by Gonzalez, the Lady Tigers slowed the game down and took advantage of how aggressive State College had to play defense. Gonzalez got a backdoor layup and a 3-point play to push the margin back to 51-34 with 3:51 left. State College never got closer than the final margin.
“We just had play smart,” said McConnell, whose sister-in-law, former Penn State star and current Pittsburgh coach Suzie McConnell Serio was in attendance. “They obviously had to play with desperation and aggressive. “We were going to try to get some easy baskets out of it. We were still looking to attack.”
Gonzalez led the Lady Tigers with 18 points. Morningstar and Brennan, who nailed two 3-pointers in the second quarter, added 10 each.
Kyla Irwin shook off the tough first half and led the Lady Little Lions with 18 points. Treglia added 15.
Seniors King, Mahon, Aubrey Swanson and Margee Lenze played their final games for the Lady Little Lions.
Bethany Irwin credited her seniors for leading the team during a solid season that culminated with the team’s first PIAA berth since 2010.
“I know a lot of us really didn’t think we’d get it here,” Irwin said. “We had that lull in January and we climbed out of it. I’m so proud they made it this far. … They can’t hang their heads. It was a great season.
“I can’t say this is the most talented group we’ve ever had, but they played with a lot of heart and played together and they liked winning.”