State College girls’ basketball hoping to continue season turnaround

State College girls’ basketball coach Chris Leazier, left, and freshman guard Maya Bokunewicz will take on McDowell at 1 p.m. Saturday in a PIAA subregional game.
State College girls’ basketball coach Chris Leazier, left, and freshman guard Maya Bokunewicz will take on McDowell at 1 p.m. Saturday in a PIAA subregional game.

It was a stretch that wasn’t very fun for the State College girls’ basketball team.

But it most certainly was a learning experience — both for the girls and their coaches.

It was something to test their mettle, their resolve. Losing seven straight games in the dead of January can ruin a lot of basketball seasons.

“We kept believing that we were capable of playing well,” Lady Little Lions coach Chris Leazier said. “We were trying to get them to see, in those games, it’s not that we weren’t playing good basketball, it’s just that we weren’t playing consistent.”

State College came out the other side of that dark tunnel, and is now one win away from a return to the state tournament.

The Lady Little Lions (9-14) face McDowell (12-11) of Erie, the District 10 champion, at 1 p.m. Saturday at Slippery Rock University’s Morrow Fieldhouse in a PIAA Class 6A subregional, with the winner getting into the PIAA first round next Friday.

Getting to this point has been about perseverance.

With several new players and a new coaching staff, there was a lot to learn before the season began and even over the first month of games. However, they were feeling rather confident with a 4-2 record through December.

Then came the tailspin, and while there was no one defining moment that got the team turned around, there was still much to learn. Leazier talked to the girls about what determines wins and losses, not by which is the best team but who plays better each particular night. The girls didn’t get discouraged and, slowly, the team identity took shape.

“In the end I think they bought into that message,” Leazier said. “That’s really important over the course of a long winter season for kids to stay with it and learn how to manage some of the ups and downs.”

That kind of progress, when and how they learned, led to an epiphany for the team’s first-year coach: In his 22 seasons of coaching a number of different levels of basketball, from junior high to the NBA Developmental League to foreign national teams, he had never had a team make so much progress over the final two weeks of a regular season. He relayed his discovery to his players both before and after the team lost to Altoona last Friday in the District 6 championship game.

“Often by the time you get to February, you kind of are what you are as a team,” Leazier said. “By the time we got to the end of this season, it was almost as if we had moved into a new season.”

He is seeing the consistency he had been seeking, with reliable play from veteran leaders Taylor Love and Kayla Hawbaker, and major improvements from the collection of veterans and young players.

So, after a few days off to rest their bodies, they have been spending the week working on in-game situations and polishing their free-throw shooting skills, which were not good last Friday.

With the progress and confidence the girls have from last few weeks, Leazier hopes this is another small step to get another run going.

Said Leazier: “It’s been like a light bulb came on at the end of the season.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @gordoncdt