SPRINGFIELD >> Less than two minutes into Springfield’s 59-37 victory over Pope John Paul II in the opening round of the District 1 Class 5A girls basketball playoffs Tuesday night, Cougars coach Kylynn McNichol had seen enough.
Top-seeded Springfield trailed, 4-0, and McNichol opted to burn her first timeout.
McNichol did not call the timeout out of panic or desperation, but necessity. She could see that her young team was a bit nervous and a little out of sorts.
“I told them that we were OK, to settle down, relax and play our game,” McNichol said.
The timeout, which came 1 minute, 28 seconds into the game, was what the Cougars (20-4) needed to advance to Friday’s district quarterfinals against ninth-seeded Penn Wood, which knocked off eighth-seeded Upper Merion, 51-47.
The Cougars came out of the 30-second break and scored 13 straight points to foil the Golden Panthers’ upset bid.
“We needed a break to collect ourselves,” senior co-captain Maggie O’Connell added.
Sophomore Jordan D’Ambrosio led three players in double figures to give the Cougars their first District 1 playoff victory since 2013. D’Ambrosio scored 21 points. O’Connell pitched in with 18 points and fellow senior co-captain Amanda Hopkins added 10 points.
Defense, though, was the difference for the Cougars. Springfield forced 15 turnovers and did not let the Golden Panthers (10-13) to get their running game going.
“They took that away from us and when that happens, you get out of rhythm,” Pope John Paul II coach Liz Bernstein said. “We had some really good spurts, but in the second half what we needed to do was let the ball rip from three and crash the boards. But we didn’t do that.”
D’Ambrosio spearheaded Springfield’s defensive effort. Her assignment to start the game was to stop Monica Rapchinski, the leading scorer for the Golden Panthers. Rapchinski came into the game averaging 11 points, but D’Ambrosio held her to just three shots and no points in the opening 16 minutes. Rapchinski finished with seven points.
“Jordan is one of our best defenders,” McNichol said. “She usually gets the assignment of locking down the best offensive player on the other team and she takes a lot of pride in doing that.”
D’Ambrosio kept her approach simple.
“We like to protect the middle so my goal was to get in front of her and deny the entry pass,” D’Ambrosio said.
McNichol then switched D’Ambrosio to guard Rachel Yerger, who scored six of her team-high eight points in the first half. Yerger had just two free throws in the second half.
“Everything we do starts with defense,” D’Ambrosio said. “If we can get stops and get steals that leads to shots on the other end.”
Springfield struggled early against Pope John Paul II’s aggressive 2-3 zone. Yerger and Elise Sylvester were extremely disruptive until the Cougars found the range from 3-point land. Springfield hit three of its four triples in the first half, two in the second period to take a 30-16 lead into the locker room.
“When you have a 3-point threat like that it’s tough,” Bernstein said. “And it wasn’t just one 3-point threat, it was multiple 3-point threats and that’s difficult to defense for us. And their ball movement was tremendous.”
Despite Springfield’s 3-point shooting and its defense, Pope John Paul II did cut the deficit to 49-37 with 4:45 to go in the game, but the comeback attempt fizzled there as the Cougars reeled off 10 unanswered points to close out the game.
“We were a little excited at the start of the game,” McNichol said. “We just needed to settle in and play our game. Once we settled in, played our game and hit some shots, we were OK.”