The lead was tenuous, time was dwindling and the State College girls’ basketball team knew what it had to do.
“I just knew I had to play the best 16 seconds of defense of my entire life,” Kyla Irwin said.
A double-digit lead earlier in the fourth quarter had been trimmed to one by Mount Lebanon in the PIAA Class AAAA first round game at the Altoona Fieldhouse, but the Lady Little Lions needed one more stop to hang onto that lead.
The defense did its job, a 51-50 win was secured, and State College is headed to the second round of the state tournament for the first time since 2010.
“I can’t describe how excited I am to keep playing,” said Irwin, who finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. “This is just the beginning. This is the beginning of the season. I think our girls are starting to work together and we’re just so happy to be here.”
The Lady Little Lions (18-7) will meet North Allegheny, a 64-39 winner over Penn Trafford, in the second round Tuesday at a site and time to be announced.
“This is a great run,” coach Bethany Irwin said. “To be in the sweet 16 is just crazy right now.”
Jalyn Shelton-Burleigh had a huge start to the game and led the way with 19 points and nine rebounds, Ali Treglia added eight points and Carrie Mahon had six points, six assists and three steals.
Christine Ehland’s 16 points and Maura Wallace’s 10 paced the Blue Devils (15-8).
The Lady Little Lions had a lead as large as 45-32 after a Bridget King layup 1:40 into the fourth quarter, but turnovers thanks to some serious Mount Lebanon pressure fueled the comeback.
Despite being saddled with four fouls, Ehland scored eight points in the fourth, with her layup off an inbounds play cutting the margin to 49-48 with 13:37 left.
“They had an amazing effort,” Mount Lebanon coach Dori Oldecker said. “They had a ‘never-say-quit’ attitude. They were relentless and I was really proud of their comeback in an extraordinary situation.”
Mahon found Treglia for a bucket 20 seconds later, but Ehland responded again with another basket with 1:02 left.
The ball got down low to Shelton-Burleigh, but she was blocked by Madeleine Collins with 45 seconds left, and the Blue Devils held the ball for the final shot, calling a time out with 16 seconds left to set up the play.
“I told Carrie (Mahon), we talked about her lacrosse foot skills,” Bethany Irwin said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be the best 16 seconds of defense on the top,’ because we knew they were going to penetrate and kick, or she was going to go all the way in.”
“We wanted to take the last shot, or (get) a put-back,” Oldecker said. “We wanted to give ourselves an opportunity to get off a good look. If it’s a miss, a put-back. We did not want to give State College another possession.”
After winding off a few more seconds, the Blue Devils made a few passes to stretch the defense and try to find an opening.
“I didn’t even realize how much time was left until their bench was counting — eight, seven, six,” Kyla Irwin said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, crap, they’re going to try to score now.’ Whenever the girl came down, I just knew I wasn’t going to let here score. No way I was going to let her score.”
Margie McCaffrey, who finished with eight points, finally drove the baseline, got into trouble and tried to dish the ball to a teammate, but King deflected the pass and the clock ran out before anyone could get a handle on the ball.
“That buzzer was just the best sound I ever heard,” Kyla Irwin said.
State College had built its lead early, scoring the game’s first six points to never trail, and had the margin at 21-11 by the end of the quarter. Fueling the hot start was Shelton-Burleigh, who scored 13 points in the quarter, including a 3-pointer, and made her first six field goal attempts.
“She doesn’t miss that banker, and I hope to God I didn’t just jinx her,” Bethany Irwin said, knocking on a nearby wood door “She doesn’t miss that. She pulled us through.”
She finished 8 for 11 from the floor, and the margin stayed between seven and 12 until the fourth quarter.
“(We were) not surprised,” Oldecker said. “I saw a lot of film on her. I thought she was an outstanding player, and is an outstanding player. She was pretty hot in the first half, but she cooled down. They killed us on the boards. They had a lot of second-chance opportunities.”
State College finished with a 34-26 rebounding advantage.
The Lady Little Lions also will see their season continue, and are enjoying every second of the ride.
“I’m glad we finished,” Bethany Irwin said. “Those 16 seconds were probably the longest of my season right now.”
Notes: State College finished 18 for 42 from the field and had 15 turnovers. Mount Lebanon had 13 turnovers, and was 21 for 55 from the floor. … The Lady Little Lions last played in the PIAA second round in 2010, losing to Baldwin. In 2009, they made it to the state quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Mount Lebanon.