UWCHLAN >> For so many decades, the postgame tears were the byproduct of repeated crushing disappointment on the basketball court. But on Tuesday, in the West Chester Henderson girls’ locker room, there were tears of joy.
In the ultimate test, to see if the Warriors had finally ascended to elite status in Ches-Mont league, Henderson came through with a tense 49-44 road victory at Downingtown East to capture the program’s first ever Ches-Mont National title. Ranked No. 1 in the District 1 5A power rankings, the Warriors (18-0) are now just two wins from wrapping up what would have been unthinkable a few years ago: an unbeaten regular season.
So it wasn’t at all surprising that head coach Greta Neff became a little emotional after here team outscored the tradition-rich Cougars 14-6 in the fourth quarter to complete the come-from-behind triumph.
“She was crying in the locker room and I started crying too,” said junior center Grace Ferguson. “I am so happy we got this for her. She deserves it. She is a great coach – I love her.”
Now 10-0 in league play, Henderson has a two-game lead in the standings with one to go: on Feb. 6th at Coatesville. Downingtown East falls to 7-2, 14-5.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment,” said senior guard Erin Thompson, who scored six of her team-high 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“Forever, it’s always been Downingtown East, Downingtown East,” added Ferguson, who chipped in with 12 points. “This was a big test of our heart. I think we just wanted it more than (Downingtown East) did.”
Trailing 40-35 early in the fourth period, the Warriors seized the lead for good with an impactful 8-0 mini-run that culminated with a steal and a couple free throws by Thompson. And then Ferguson scored what wound up being the game-winner from the post with about three minutes to go, while the Cougars’ 6-foot-5 Bella Smuda was on the bench with four fouls.
“This is a smart, disciplined team and we know when to pound it inside, and when to pull up,” Thompson pointed out.
“Our kids don’t seem to get rattled – they’ve done that all season,” Neff added. “Somehow, we just keep finding ways to keep chugging along. They have good confidence in each other and themselves, and I couldn’t be more proud of a group of girls.”
Following another steal, Thompson connected on a baseline jumper to make it 47-44 with just over a minute on the clock, and then point guard Maddie DePrisco closed it out with a couple late free throws.
“Downingtown in general, and East in particular, have such great history in girls’ basketball for many years, so for us to come here and get a win in their gym, on Senior Night, I don’t think there is a bigger stage than that,” Neff said.
“A lot of these kids have been with me since I started here. To see them put in all the hard work and do things the right way, and get rewarded for it, that’s all you ever want as a coach.”
It was never easy on Tuesday, of course. The Cougars got off to a terrific start, forced Henderson into turning it over on its first four possessions, and raced out to a 16-4 lead. But the Warriors exhibited some championship meddle by regrouping and staging their own 16-4 rally the rest of the way to take a 23-20 lead into the intermission.
“We rode the emotion of Senior Night early, but they were going to come back,” said Downingtown East head coach Tom Schurtz. “They are a good team.”
Led by senior Erin Phelan — who scored 10 of her 12 points in the third quarter — the Cougars came roaring back to regain the lead. But East was unable to sustain it. Smuda led the way with 14 points and nine blocks.
“Henderson did a great job at the end of the game, and we made some errors late that cost us,” Schurtz explained.
When it was over, Neff acknowledged that she did not know the historical implications of the program’s division championship, but added: “I’ve been too scared to ask. But I’d venture to say this is the best start in school history.”
DePrisco, who is a senior like fellow starters Abbey Shea and Erin Torrance, summed it all up this way: “We’ve never been in this position before.
“All the seniors came into this season saying we were going to make something of this season. We knew it had never been done before, so we set out to get it.”
West Chester Henderson 49, Downingtown East 44
WEST CHESTER HENDERSON – DePrisco 1 2-3 5; Thompson 5 2-2 14; Torrance 3 0-2 8; Smith 0 1-4 1; Shea 4 1-2 9; Ferguson 4 4-7 12. Totals 17 10-20 49.
DOWNINGTOWN EAST – Tyrell 1 2-2 4; Crum 3 1-2 9; Smuda 6 2-2 14; Phelan 6 0-0 12; Williams 2 0-0 5. Totals 18 3-6 44.
W.C. Henderson 13 10 12 14 — 49
Downingtown East 16 4 18 6 — 44
Three-point goals: DePrisco, Thompson 2, Torrance 2, Crum 2, Williams.
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