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Upper Dublin edges Souderton in PIAA-6A semifinals

Upper Dublin’s Jackie Vargas looks to shoot as Souderton’s Kate Connolly defends during their PIAA-6A semifinal on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

NORTHAMPTON >> Jess Polin had a chance to breathe.

The Upper Dublin freshman stood at the free throw line with 2.6 seconds left having just bricked her first foul shot when Souderton called timeout. With the score tied and a trip to the state title game on the line, Polin used the unexpected break to compose herself for the upcoming second shot.

Breath exhaled, Polin knocked down the shot and after a last-ditch heave by Souderton fell short, Polin and her teammates mobbed on the court, 26-25 winners over Souderton in Monday’s PIAA 6A girls basketball semifinal at CR South.

“I bricked the first one and I was pretty shaken up,” Polin said. “Souderton called time and I guess they were trying to ice me, but it gave me a breath and a chance to think what would happen if I made it and I put it in.”

Upper Dulbin’s utter jubilation was matched only by Souderton’s heartbreak. While the Cardinals advanced to their first ever state championship game, the Indians saw their season for the second straight year by a late whistle in the state semifinals. This year, Souderton was the favorite, the SOL and District 1 champion coming in on a 23-game winning streak.

No amount of words could ease the pain of Monday’s loss, but Souderton coach Lynn Carroll tried to sum up her team’s remarkable season in the hallway outside its locker room. A 29-3 record, the most single-season wins in school history, coupled with that first-ever district title plus the SOL Continental and tournament titles are the things Carroll hopes her players look back on.

That, and the way each player on the roster selflessly put team before individual accolades.

“I feel like a celebrity when I walk around and people want to talk about them and go out of their way to talk to me about them,” Carroll said. “These past two years are the most fun I’ve ever had as a coach, a player, any team I’ve ever been a part of. They have a lot to be proud of, this is a team that set records over the last two years and I am so proud of them. I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to the seniors tonight.”

Upper Dublin (26-5), which won its seventh straight game, had two things working for it on Monday. The first was the pace, with the Cardinals getting Souderton to play a drawn-out style on both ends that allowed Upper Dublin’s defense the chance to keep the game close. The second was the play of sophomore center Jackie Vargas on both ends of the floor.

Souderton’s Megan Bealer battles Upper Dublin’s Maggie Weglos for a rebound during their PIAA-6A semifinal on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

Vargas was involved early, scoring the first six UD points and her presence in the paint on both ends reaped plenty of benefits for Upper Dublin. A mobile 6-foot-2 post, Vargas had four blocks and altered numerous other shots to go with 10 rebounds and she was able to draw a couple of key fouls offensively.

“We wanted this, we worked so hard for this and we feel we can beat any team if we put our minds to it,” Vargas said. “We says as a team that ‘Heart plus working together equals a (win)’ and that’s what we did tonight. We showed it, anything is possible and any team is beatable and we proved that tonight.”

Vargas was also heavily involved late as UD coach Morgan Funsten flipped the script and let the center serve as the primary ballhandler for most of the second half. Funsten lauded the defensive ability of Souderton’s Megan Walbrandt, Megan Bealer and Tori Dowd and felt the way to combat it was to get the ball out of his own guards’ hands.

Funsten also set an audacious goal for his team defensively.

“We didn’t want any of their players scoring in double-digits, that was our focus to not let one of their girls get hot,” Funsten said. “It starts with Jackie on the back end altering and blocking shots and the great defense of the other four people. Maggie Weglos is our hear and soul and again came up huge defensively keeping us in the game because that was a frantic fourth quarter.”

Souderton led 11-7 after the first but foul trouble had already started to impact the game. Senior Alana Cardona picked up her second foul with 1:56 left in the opening frame, putting her on the bench for the rest of the half. She was joined by senior Kate Connolly, who picked up her second with 7:25 left in the second quarter.

Kara Grebe gave UD two huge second quarter buckets off the bench and Polin hit a three to break a 13-13 tie, sending the Cardinals to the break up 16-13.

“We wanted to stick around with them because if you’re the favorite and the other team is sticking around, you start to think a little more about the ramifications if you were to lose,” Funsten said. “That was our mindset, let’s make them think about what’s ahead of them. Jackie Vargas, I think, really dominated the game both offensively and defensively.”

Bealer hit a three and followed by splitting a pair of foul shots to open the third quarter and put Souderton back up. It was the last lead of the game for the Indians, who went the final 5:59 of the third period without a point. Vargas restored UD’s lead on the following possession, then Weglos chased down her own miss and found Dayna Balasa for three and Nicole Kaiser’s drive put the Cardinals up 23-17.

Souderton’s Alana Cardona drives to the basket as Upper Dublin’s Jackie Vargas defends during their PIAA-6A quarterfinal on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

Late in the third, Balasa missed a pair at the line, starting a streak of missed free throws that opened the door for Souderton. The Indians twice got within one and later tied the game 25-25 when Connolly split a pair of freebies but they didn’t seem to get the same looks they had made look easy all season.

“At one point in the second half I called a timeout and said it felt like every shot we were taking was a desperation shot, like if this one doesn’t go in, we’re going to lose,” Carroll said. “There was a stretch where we played a little more loose but Upper Dublin does a great job, they hold teams to season lows for a reason and a lot of it was a credit to them but that second quarter really killed us.”

Connolly, who led Souderton with nine points, knows this team won’t be judged on the score of its final game.

“I’m really happy with how we’ve played, how we’ve grown as a team and come together,” the senior said. “I was really proud to play with this group of girls and I’m really sad it ended this way but I wouldn’t take any of it back.”

Upper Dublin faces Central Bucks South, a 52-49 winner over North Allegheny, in the state title game Friday in a 6 p.m. tip from the Giant Center. With both teams from District 1, it means the district will have a second-straight 6A champion — Boyertown won last year — while the SOL will have its first representative in a state final since CB West in 2015.

Polin said the final play was set up for Vargas but the sophomore opted to pass to her. Not feeling comfortable to take one from outside, the freshman drove and got herself to the line. She just needed to breathe once she got there.

“It was just another shot,” Polin said. “I take it every practice. I was ready for it.”

UPPER DUBLIN 26, SOUDERTON 25
UPPER DUBLIN 8 8 7 3 — 26
SOUDERTON 11 2 4 8 — 25
Upper Dublin: Jackie Vargas 4 3-6 11, Nicole Kaiser 1 2-2 4, Jess Polin 1 1-3 4, Dayna Balasa 1 0-2 3, Kara Grebe 2 0-0 4, Maggie Weglos 0 0-1 0. Nonscoring: Sarah Eskew, Anaje Smith. Totals: 9 5-13 26.
Souderton: Kate Connolly 1 6-8 9, Megan Bealer 1 1-2 4, Alana Cardona 3 0-1 6, Megan Walbrandt 2 2-2 6, Erica Stephens 0 0-2 0. Nonscoring: Megan O’Donnell, Tori Dowd, Sami Falencki. Totals: 7 9-15 25.
3-pointers: UD – Polin, Balasa; S – Bealer, Connolly.

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