PHILADELPHIA >> Finally, the void is filled.
After a four-year absence, Cardinal O’Hara returned to the Palestra Monday night. At long last, this team of stars, including four Division I recruits, managed to get over the hump together.
Since they were freshmen, All-Delco seniors Mary Sheehan and Hannah Nihill had told themselves the same thing. A repeatedly sad refrain. Maybe next year. Maybe one day.
Last week, O’Hara vanquished Neumann-Goretti in the Catholic League semifinals. Not many thought it would be possible. Then the Lions played Monday to exact revenge on Archbishop Wood, the reigning champs. The Lions had scored 20 measly points in an embarrassing setback to Wood on Jan. 20.
Not this time. It took four years, and a lot of heartache, but this particularly talented group from O’Hara finally won the big one, capturing a Catholic League championship with a 35-30 decision over Wood.
“I just can’t believe this has happened,” said Nihill, who guided the Lions with 13 points. She made two freebies to put the Lions ahead, 33-30, with 25 seconds to go. “We prepared and prepared. We watched that game (against Wood) a million times. … We knew defense was going to win this game and it did.
“It’s an end of an era, in some ways, of playing with these girls for four years. It’s always been our goal. It was always next year, next year. But to finally have it? It’s a dream come true. It’s amazing.”
For three years, with Nihill and Sheehan, and junior Molly Paolino, Kenzie Gardler and Maura Hendrixson all together in the starting lineup, the Lions were and are regarded as one of the top teams in the state. No. 1 in Delco for essentially the last three seasons, too.
With this nucleus, it’s hard to imagine they had never won a major title.
“They never won anything,” longtime head coach Linus McGinty said. “I don’t want to disparage District 12, but … that’s nothing.
“It’s great for Hannah and Mary. They both played all these years, and to get upset by Wood last year (in the semifinals). I’m not sure we could have beaten them and Goretti last year at the same time. I thought we were better than Wood (this year) and as good as Goretti, but we played like (garbage) both games (in the regular season).
“We just wanted to have a lead late because we didn’t want to chase them.”
Time and time again, the Lions came up short getting to basketball’s cathedral, the Palestra, which is the pinnacle for every O’Hara player. It could be argued a Catholic League championship carries more weight than going all the way in the PIAA tournament. After all, O’Hara and the Catholic League are still relative newcomers to the idea of playing for a state title.
There remains an immense appreciation for playing in this game — at the greatest venue in the city — for that one moment which had eluded the Lions all this time. That one chance to hoist the PCL plaque above their shoulders.
“To be honest, it’s still kind of hitting me,” said Sheehan, a two-time All-Delco with Nihill, who played her typical workmanlike game. She finished with four points, five rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
Sheehan, by the way, battled through the flu in the first go-round with Wood. Needless to say she wanted to have an excellent game Monday.
“To do it senior year, it’s really special,” she said. “It’s nice because we fell short a few times in years past and this year against them we thought we were going to come back. Once we beat Goretti, we felt that we were almost over the hump, but we knew we had one more thing to accomplish.
“You could see the energy, the passion. We felt like we had them.
The Lions held the lead most of the way. The Vikings erased a five-point deficit to even the score, 28-28, before O’Hara’s top reserve player Lauren Leicht hit a long field goal, proving to be the winning bucket. From there, the Lions simply held on. Nihill made a pair of freebies to put them ahead by three points. With nine seconds to go, Hendrixson buried two foul shots to seal the win.
“We’ve been dreaming of this, our junior and senior year together. That’s when we were going to be our best,” said Hendrixson, who scored 10 points. “We were no longer the underdogs. We were not losing anymore to teams that are just as good as us. We needed to win now, there was no way we were losing it.”
So now the Lions can remove the weight off their shoulders and prepare for their final journey together, one that is destined for Hershey in March. But nothing will ever compare to what they experienced at the Palestra.
To contact Matt Smith, email [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DTMattSmith