PHLADELPHIA >> Upper Dublin prides itself on its defense and there aren’t many teams that do it better than the Cardinals.
They ran into one of those teams Friday night. UD’s offense ran into the brick wall that is Cardinal O’Hara in their PIAA Class 6A girls playoff opener at Philadelphia University and with the Lions stuffing UD on one end, the Cardinals couldn’t keep up at the other.
Upper Dublin didn’t give in, but found itself too far behind to overcome in a 53-25 loss.
“Their pressure got to us,” Upper Dublin coach Morgan Funsten said. “We had trouble handling their pressure. I thought we came out a little intimidated. Defensively, early on, I thought we were doing an OK job but in transition we turned the ball over a couple times, they got some easy baskets and things snowballed from there.”
St. Joseph’s recruit Mary Sheehan set the tone by hitting a 3-pointer on the opening possession and creating plenty of mismatches on the offensive end. But it was the work of two of her teammates, guards Molly Paolino and Kenize Gardler, that defined the game.
Gardler, a junior with a Villanova commitment, hounded Upper Dublin sharpshooter Josie Barrett all game while Paolino, also a junior, stepped up to task of guarding UD leading scorer Nicole Kaiser. With the two key cogs in its offense either silenced or having to work much harder than usual, it left the rest of the Cardinals cast in tough situations.
“I was told to follow her on her back, because when you’re guarding a shooter, you’re not supposed to let them get an easy shot off,” Gardler said. “You want them to take it off the dribble and that’s what I was working on mostly. Every time she caught it and dribbled, my teammates helped me and it was just good team defense.”
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Of course, Upper Dublin’s struggles in halfcourt only came when they got the ball into a set. O’Hara’s press was on the mark from the opening tip, with the five guard lineup the Lions use creating a host of problems for Upper Dublin (21-7).
While O’Hara (22-5) doesn’t have a lot of size, it has plenty of versatility on both sides of the floor. The Lions are also extremely quick across the board, as the Cardinals found out.
“They’re really fast and all good shooters so we knew we were going to have to close out hard on every single player,” Kaiser said. “That hurt us, how they were all such good shooters. It caught us a little off guard.”
O’Hara scored the first eight points of the game before Kaiser finally got a shot to drop in for the Cardinals. The night clearly wasn’t Upper Dublin’s, but a scrum for a loose ball at the end of the first quarter rolled to Sheehan and the senior buried the shot at the horn, just to stamp it home.
Paolino and Gardler said the Lions did a lot of prep work through film and that showed them the best ways to defend their particular marks. As a team, Paolino said the approach was just to crowd the Cardinals and try to play them straight up and deny easy passes and shots.
With Kaiser, who does most of her damage by cooly driving into the lane, Paolino just tried to make the path as clogged as possible.
“We tried to take away the straight line-drives,” Paolino said. “We knew she likes to get to the basket and we had to play off to not let her drive as easily. Kenzie did an awesome job on her girl, she had her in deny all game.”
O’Hara built its lead up to 25-7 at the half, with Kaiser having scored five of the seven Cardinal points. The score was lopsided, but UD was defending well enough, for the most part, that it wasn’t out of hand.
The Lions didn’t relent at all after the half however, and that build-up over time is what eventually did Upper Dublin in. With their two top scorers blanketed, the Cardinals started making mistakes on the offensive end that the quick hands of Paolino and point guard Hannah Nihill were all too happy to turn into steals and transition baskets.
“They start five guards and we start two guards,” Funsten said. “They did a great job of taking advantage of their strentgh in five guards. They pressured all five spots and really gave us pressure running any of our sets. It just came down to playing basketball, and they’re the No. 1 ranked team in the state for a reason.”
Nihill, the Drexel recruit, scored seven of her game-high 15 in the third quarter as O’Hara wrestled complete control of the game with a 38-13 lead. Upper Dublin’s offense perked up a bit in the fourth after O’Hara eased up the pressure and took some of its key players out.
Barrett, who did have a long night, was able to bury two of her trademark long 3-point shots, extending her school record to 181 career makes. Barrett, Demi Balasa and reserve seniors Taylor Purshock and Hannah Reape had a couple minutes together on the floor, paying tribute to their accomplishments as Cardinals.
“I told the girls after the game you can’t take away from what our team accomplished this year,” Funsten said. “I thanked them, especially the seniors, for four great years. There are some major accomplishments from those four seniors. I’m proud of them, disappointed in the result, but not in our preparation and effort.”
The cupboard isn’t empty at Upper Dublin. Kaiser is a junior and showed huge growth from her sophomore season, junior Maggie Weglos finished the year as a better player and the Cardinals also have talented sophomores and freshman who expect to see a bigger role going forward.
“We’re upset about the loss, but we played one of the best teams in the state,” Kaiser said. “We can take this and use it as fire to work hard over the offseason.”
Cardinal O’Hara 53, Upper Dublin 25
Upper Dublin 2 5 6 12 — 25
Cardinal O’Hara 12 13 13 15 — 53
Upper Dublin: Nicole Kaiser 3 4-6 10, Josie Barrett 3 0-0 6, Demi Balasa 1 0-0 3, Maggie Weglos 2 0-0 4, Kara Grebe 1 0-0 2. Nonscoring: Purshock, Reape, Barbera, Vargas. Totals: 9 4-6 25.
Cardinal O’Hara: Molly Paolino 2 0-0 4, Mary Sheehan 5 0-0 11, Kenzie Gardler 4 1-1 10, Hannah Nihill 7 1-2 15, Maura Hendrixson 1 0-0 2, Hoy 1 0-0 3, Patterson 2 0-0 5, Helms 1 0-0 3. Totals: 23 2-3 53.
3-pointers: UD – Barrett 2, Balasa; CO – Sheehan, Gardler, Hoy, Patterson, Helms.
Top Photo: Upper Dublin’s Maggie Weglos pushes past Cardinal O’Hara’s Hannah Nihill during their PIAA Class 6A first round game on Friday, March 10, 2017. (Bob Raines/Digital First Media)