STATE COLLEGE The State College girls’ basketball team had not won the District 6 title since 2010, and had not been in the PIAA tournament since 2012.
For Bridget King and Carrie Mahon, after toiling away in different roles in seasons past, both have found their niches and are major reasons the Lady Little Lions have made their return to the state tournament.
“Every single one of us wanted to win districts and get to where we are right now,” said Mahon, who will join her Lady Little Lion (17-7) teammates at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Altoona Field House for their PIAA Class AAAA opener against Mount Lebanon (16-6).
“Last year we didn’t make it as far,” Mahon said. “I hope this year we can keep going and be strong this year.”
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When State College last appeared in the state bracket, two teams from District 6 earned berths, with the runner-up having to go through a play-in game. In 2012, the Lady Little Lions took that root, won the play-in game and ran up against Mount Lebanon, which was the two-time defending state champion. The Blue Devils won that game but were ousted before the chance for the three-peat.
King and Mahon were sophomores on that team. Mahon was a back-up point guard, while King started but in a completely different role as a post player.
On that team, the 5-foot-9 King was counted on for her defense in the paint, rebounding and some solid post moves despite often being undersized.
“She’s very versatile and she’s always accepted her role,” coach Bethany Irwin said. “She did everything she could. I remember her busting her tail in one of those playoff games because she was the biggest kid we had her sophomore year.”
With the ascension of junior Jalyn Shelton-Burleigh and sophomore Kyla Irwin, who leads the team this season with 20 points and 13 rebounds a game, King was not needed as much in the paint, so she moved out to a wing. She is now one of the top 3-point shooting threats on the team, and is still pretty strong on the boards.
“I do like being out on a wing, especially since my size hasn’t helped me down low,” King said. “But it’s been a good switch and I enjoy it a lot, but I like both positions and I’m happy either way.”
King also doesn’t let her post play get too rusty. She still works there sometimes in practice, giving a few bruises to Irwin and Shelton-Burleigh, and when a smaller guard is assigned to defend her, King will move low so they can exploit a mismatch with King’s experienced post moves.
Patience also paid off for Mahon to find her role, and she has gotten so comfortable in her first season as starting point guard she has set the single-season team record for assists at 187.
What helps her game is her other sport — lacrosse — for which she has been one of the team’s top scorers the last few seasons. She plans to join her sister, Katie, at Marquette and the Warriors’ lacrosse team next year.
“Basketball translates with defense and it helps with footwork and stuff,” Mahon said. “And they both help each other with conditioning.”
That she and King have found comfortable spots on the floor, along with fellow seniors Margee Lenze and Aubrey Swanson, has contributed to the Lady Little Lions’ season and how the parts of the puzzle have fallen into place.
“That has been a huge part of this season,” Irwin said. “Everybody has their role. Everybody’s accepted their role, and they have fulfilled their role to the best of their ability. I couldn’t ask for anything else from any of these kids. They have zoned in on what they are capable of doing and they have gone after it.”
They won their first six games of the season, then lost six of eight before finally getting their game turned back around.
“It’s all preparation for the end of February and March,” Irwin said. “If we didn’t have those lulls and those lows, we wouldn’t know how to challenge ourselves to climb back out.”
Having the pieces fitting in the right place got State College past Altoona 60-57 last Thursday in the district final, and has the team among the final 32 still alive in the state.
It’s a nice reward for the seniors who have found their roles and a comfortable place on the court.
“This has been awesome and I’m looking forward to keep going in the tournament,” King said. “It’s been a great season and we’ve been having a lot of fun.”