The way Bellefonte coach Adam Gearhart sees it, his girls’ basketball team is playing with house money.
Sure, the Lady Red Raiders fell to Obama Academy 42-30 during Saturday’s District 6-8-9 Class 5A championship. And, sure, Bellefonte even held a 20-19 halftime advantage.
But, with a roster that features two freshmen, no one really expected them to make it this far. For the first time since 2010 they’re still headed to the PIAA tournament — where they’ll face the third-place finisher from District 7 on March 11.
“We’ve already exceeded expectations,” Gearhart said after the game at Mt. Aloysius College. “We’re playing with house money right now. ... I cannot be down on my team whatsoever right now.”
In the moments after the final buzzer, though, disappointment was still painted on the faces of the Lady Raiders.
One starter sobbed quietly into a jacket. Others clapped politely while medals were placed over the necks of Obama Academy’s players. Most just stared straight ahead, red-faced.
This is further than most anyone expected these Lady Raiders would go. But Bellefonte’s girls still weren’t satisfied — and that made Gearhart even prouder.
“They’re fighters,” he said. “I’ve said from Day 1 this probably isn’t our most-talented team, but we’re a team — and this is the team I wanted to coach. And it’s a team I love because they are fighters, they are going to come out and slug it with you.”
Bellefonte’s fight was evident from as early as the first quarter.
No. 1 seed Obama Academy, which boasts three players hovering around 6-foot, turned up the defensive pressure early as Bellefonte didn’t record its first field goal until five minutes into the game. The Lady Raiders adjusted, going on a 7-0 run in the second quarter and taking a 14-11 lead.
Obama Academy again frustrated Bellefonte’s offense to open the second half, as the local squad didn’t record a field goal for a span of nearly seven minutes and fell behind 29-22. But, after back-to-back baskets from Raisa Gregor and Abbie Carr, Bellefonte clawed back and trailed by just one possession heading into the final quarter.
“We don’t give up,” Gregor said. “We’re going to keep fighting until the clock says zero.”
Added Carr: “Even if we’re down by five or 10 or 20, it doesn’t matter. We’re still going to play our game like we know how to.”
Gregor paced the Red Raiders with 10 points, while Carr followed with eight. Mallorie Smith also chipped in seven points.
But Obama Academy was a big test for Bellefonte for one big reason — senior forward Michaela Porter, a signee on the Cincinnati women’s basketball team. Her three-star ESPN.com recruiting profile lists her at 5-foot-9, but the 6-foot Carr thought she might’ve been an inch taller than her.
Porter accounted for exactly half of Obama Academy’s offense with 21 points. She was a force inside and, when Bellefonte focused on her toward the end of the first quarter, she stepped back and hit a 3-pointer. She was even 6 of 7 from the free-throw line.
“She’s a tall girl; athletic, solid girl, and they’re rare in the girls’ game,” Gearhart said. “And she was physical. She was able to bump us around a little bit.”
The game didn’t get out of hand until the final period, when Obama Academy opened the quarter on a 6-0 run to extend its lead to 35-26. The lead ballooned later due, in part, to fouling.
The Bellefonte girls weren’t pleased with Saturday’s result, but even Gregor had to take a step back to appreciate how far they’ve come. She said, if someone told her in the preseason her team would’ve reached this point, she “100 percent wouldn’t have believed them.”
Now, despite Saturday’ loss, this team is headed to the state tournament. So Gearhart said it’s time to look ahead; not back.
“Like I said, we’re fighters,” he said. “You give us a puncher’s chance and we might jump up and get somebody here. We just did not do it today — but we can get it next time.”