HERSHEY >> When the horn sounded on Upper Dublin’s 47-35 win over Central Dauphin in the first round of the PIAA Class 6A state playoffs, the Cardinals bench erupted in celebration. The players hugged each other and the cheers and music in the postgame locker room could be heard on the opposite side of the Milton Hershey School’s Spartan Center.
The defending state champions aren’t setting the expectation of raising back-to-back banners. They’re just enjoying the ride.
“If you think we’re looking at state championship or bust this year, you’re wrong,” Cardinals coach Morgan Funsten said. “We’re super excited. That’s what we tried to do this year. We tried to celebrate things that you’re supposed to celebrate. If all we’re worried about is winning a state championship, it’s not going to be a fun year.”
The fun started earlier in the day when the team boarded a bus in Upper Dublin and headed to Hershey. The last time they did that, they returned with a state championship 12 months ago.
“A lot of people were singing a lot,” junior forward Jackie Vargas said. “I was worried that they were going to lose some of their energy before we even got to the game, but everybody was great.”
On the court, it was a very businesslike win.
The Cardinals (1-5) started the game on fire, jumping out to an 11-0 lead. Vargas and Kara Grebe each had four points and Dayna Balasa hit a three-pointer to take an early advantage.
Central Dauphin (3-3) responded with eight straight points of their own to end the first quarter with the Cardinals ahead, 11-8.
The Rams took their first and only lead of the game in the second quarter, 14-13. It didn’t last long. Funsten called a timeout and Jess Polin hit a three-pointer on the ensuing possession. The next time Upper Dublin had the ball, Balasa drilled a trey to make it 19-14. The Cardinals went into the half ahead, 21-16.
“We were frustrated,” Funsten said, “not because they came back, it was how they came back. It was mistakes we were making defensively. It’s stuff that we pride ourselves in. I was upset and I know the girls were upset about making those mistakes. What we talked about at halftime was how impressive it was to then go into halftime with a five-point lead and almost more.”
Six different Cardinals scored in the third quarter to take full control of the game. They built their lead back to double digits for the first time since it was 11-0 and took a 34-21 lead to the fourth.
“The first three minutes of the third quarter were the most important three minutes of the game,” Funsten said. “We had gained momentum going into halftime and then we continued that momentum and really kept them at a safe distance the rest of the way.”
It was more of the same in the early part of the fourth. The Upper Dublin advantage peaked at 17, 42-25, with 4:10 remaining in the game. From there the Cardinals did their best to play keepaway and hit enough free throws to keep the Rams from threatening.
Vargas led the team with 13 points and grabbed five rebounds. Balasa posted a double-double with 12 points — one three-pointer in each quarter — and 10 rebounds and Grebe added 10 points.
Despite the mistakes late in the first quarter, the Cardinals defense made it tough on Central Dauphin. The Rams had just 25 points halfway through the fourth when Upper Dublin started to pull starters. CD’s top two scorers — Sam Gress and Maddie Lafrance — were held to 18 combined points, with Gress getting 13.
“They’re a two-headed monster there with Gress and Lefrance,” Funsten said. “Gress is the real deal. She has a lightning-quick release and Sarah Eskew did a great job on her all night and Jess Polin did a great job on Lefrance all night. It’s not just those two girls covering them, it’s all five of the girls understanding that those are the two girls we couldn’t let beat us and I thought the surrounding players who were not directly defending them were ready to help and really limited their touches.”
“Gress obviously is very good,” Vargas added. “Sarah (Eskew) guarding her — where she went it was kind of like doubleteam. We were always weary — all five of us — of where she was at all times because she’s really good.”
Upper Dublin will face North Allegheny (7-2) in the second round Tuesday at a time and location to be determined.
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