ROYERSFORD >> Cardinal O’Hara junior Maura Hendrixson said it best.
After the Lions eliminated North Penn, 51-45, in the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class 6A tournament Saturday at Spring-Ford, Hendrixson was asked a question about her team’s ability to spread the wealth on the floor.
The starters played like stars, but they did so in stretches. Hendrixson had a spectacular second quarter (eight points, two assists, two rebounds). Junior Molly Paolino played shutdown defense throughout, but contributed with five points in the first quarter. Kenzie Gardler was aggressive to the basket in the fourth quarter, when she scored nine of her team’s 15 points.
Hannah Nihill and Mary Sheehan? They were pretty steady throughout.
But there’s something about this idea that the Lions can, figuratively speaking, pass the baton at any given moment. It doesn’t matter who’s scoring the points. As was the case Saturday, all of them can handle the load.
So what gives? Why is this O’Hara team so special in that way?
“We all know that one person can carry the whole team, whoever is on the floor,” Hendrixson said. “All five can dribble the ball and make good shots. All five of us can do everything, and that helps a lot.”
All five — that should be the Lions’ motto going forward. It’s the belief that anybody can get hot at the snap of a finger that has propelled them to greatness. O’Hara advances to the semifinal round Monday to play District 1 sixth-place finisher Boyertown, which nipped Northampton in the first of a PIAA Class 6A quarterfinal triple-header at Spring-Ford. The teams will be back at Spring-Ford for their semifinal meeting Monday, with a trip to Hershey on the line.
“We know if one of us isn’t having a good game, someone else is going to step up,” said Paolino, who had a heck of a game with seven points, one steal and a brand of ball-hawking defense that doesn’t show up in the box score.
“That’s what’s great when you have so many good players on your team. Even the girls off the bench. We know that Lauren (Leicht) and Bridgette (Hoy) can have a good game. And Hannah will always look to get them the ball.”
Saturday’s game was about the starting five of Paolino, Hendrixson, Gardler, Sheehan and Nihill, who accounted for all 51 points. Balance was the name of the game. Gardler and Hendrixson paced the team with 12 points apiece, while Sheehan and Nihill tossed in 10 points each. Paolino chipped in with the other seven.
“It’s very calming because we all trust each other,” said Sheehan, who had four rebounds and two blocked shots. “It’s not all on one person. We know if someone is down, somebody else will be there to pick them up. We rely on one another. It helps calm your nerves a little bit. It’s nice to see because we’re so much better as a team, and harder to guard, when all five of us are options.
“When we’re out there sharing the ball and getting everyone involved, it gives everyone confidence and it helps everyone play better on both sides, offense and defense. That’s what makes a championship team.”
Gardler strapped on her clutch shoes in the fourth quarter when the Lions needed it most. The All-Delco guard drove to the basket and scored on three occasions. With North Penn on a 7-0 run, and trailing by only five points, Gardler’s layup helped slow the Maidens’ momentum. Later, she swished a pair of free throws to make it a seven-point game.
“I do what my team needs me to do at that point,” Gardler said. “My teammates need me to step up and go to the basket and that’s what I did. I was aggressive and I tried to get my team over the top.
“We’re such a hard team to guard. Somebody can be off one second, and then the next person can be on. That’s just how we play.”
North Penn didn’t go away. Jess Huber banked a 3-pointer to trim the deficit to four, but the Lions had an answer for everything. Late in the fourth quarter, Paolino hit two free throws and Hendrixson grabbed a big offensive rebound off a Sheehan free-throw miss which essentially iced the victory for O’Hara.
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) March 18, 2017
The focal point for the Lions throughout was finding a way to limit the Maidens’ big three seniors Huber, Irisa Ye and Sam Carangi, who, like the junior Gardler, is bound for Villanova. Huber did damage in the fourth quarter, and Ye led with a game-high 15 points. But Carangi was held to four points on 2-for-9 shooting from the field.
“They’re really good scorers. We knew Carangi and Huber were going to score, but we wanted to limit them,” Paolino said. “We knew we couldn’t take them completely out of the game. If we could limit them, and play good defense, we knew our offense was going to come through for us.”
O’Hara defeated North Penn in last season’s PIAA Class AAAA semifinal. The teams faced off in a scrimmage in early December, as well.
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) March 18, 2017
“We knew that they obviously wanted revenge. They thought that they should have won last year, so we used that as motivation because there’s a reason why we got (to the state final) last year,” Nihill said. “In our scrimmage against them, we didn’t have Mary, she was out sick, and we just weren’t ourselves. We are a completely different team now than what we were then. We also kept that in mind preparing for this game. We’re not really the underdogs this game, but we had to play like it.”
O’Hara held an eight-point cushion at halftime thanks to a crisp 50 percent shooting from the field (11-for-22). North Penn shot 7-for-22 in both halves.
“Defense is what won us this game tonight. It’s what we’ve been saying all along,” Nihill said. “We knew they had a height advantage, like always, and that’s nothing new for us. We had to box out and get up in the shooters’ faces because we knew that’s what they wanted to do, shoot from the outside.”
Top photo: North Penn’s Irisa Ye is blanketed by Cardinal O’Hara defenders Mary Sheehan and Kenzie Gardler Saturday during the Lions’ PIAA Class 6A quarterfinal victory over the Maidens (by Bob Raines – Digital First Media)
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