Philadelphia >> It didn’t come easy, but minutes after West Chester Henderson captured its first-ever District 1 5A girls’ basketball title with a 41-32 win against battle-tested Villa Maria, the Warriors savored their Saturday afternoon in the sun at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.
“When the final buzzer sounded, I was so amazed, and proud of our team,” said Henderson junior forward Grace Ferguson, who blocked four Villa shots, pulled down 10 rebounds and scored 11 points. “I almost started crying, and then we hugged each other, I was so happy inside. We worked so hard this season, and this title means so much to my family, our school, our fans, our players, and our coach [Greta Neff].”
Neff said, “I couldn’t be happier for these kids. Our defense really locked down today. … They’re typical Henderson kids, they work hard and they don’t care who gets the credit as long as they reach the overall goal.”
Top seeded Henderson (28-0) used plenty of grit and hustle Saturday to pull out the win against No. 3 seed Villa Maria. It was a defensive battle, with plenty of steals (three by Warrior senior point guard Maddie DePrisco), missed shots, steals, turnovers, intercepted passes and scrambles for loose balls.
Both teams’ defenses stood tall – the Hurricanes held the Warriors to just two field goals in the second half.
Villa Maria head coach Kathy McCartney said, “Defensively, I thought we played very well today. Our players play hard regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard, in fact, sometimes I even tell our players not to look at the scoreboard.”
The Hurricanes drew first blood Saturday when sophomore forward Paige Lauder, who scored 34 points in the district semifinal, tallied on a three-point play.
The Warriors, in the PIAA district final for the first time, didn’t crack the scoring ice for nearly three minutes, when Henderson senior guard Erin Torrance nailed a trey from the right corner. It was the only three-point shot of the entire game by either team.
“There were some [opening] nerves, but I think every single person [on our team] had more motivation working than anything else,” said DePrisco. “We keep motivating each other out there. Villa Maria put some defensive pressure on us today, but we’ve stayed composed all season in the face of pressure.”
Henderson senior forward Abbey Shea, who finished with 10 points, said, “I think we were nervous early, but our excitement when we saw the [Liacouras] gym kind of overpowered that. Villa put a lot of defensive pressure on us, but I think we were able to stay composed most of the time, and that pulled us through.”
Villa Maria finished the first quarter strongly, getting a coast-to-coast drive down the right side from junior guard Abby Walheim, followed by a basket underneath by Lauder just before the buzzer to give the Hurricanes a 10-8 lead after one period.
Henderson took charge in the second quarter. Ferguson’s putback tied the score at 10-10, then DePrisco and Ferguson each scored underneath to give the Warriors a 14-10 lead. From that point on, Henderson held the lead for the rest of the game – never less than a three-point margin.
Just before halftime, Shea worked her way underneath for a couple of baskets. At halftime, Henderson had a 22-14 lead, with Shea and Ferguson combining for 15 points.
The defensive tone of the game continued in the third quarter, as both teams combined for only two points in the first four minutes of the third period.
Villa sophomore guard Morgan Warley gave the Hurricanes a boost late in the third period when she stole the ball, drove for a basket while getting fouled and made the free throw to cut Henderson’s lead to 23-19.
A couple of seconds before the third quarter ended, Lauder drove for a basket to make the score 24-21. By the end of the third quarter, she had scored 11 points.
It was Henderson’s turn to shine on defense in the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Warriors held the Hurricanes scoreless for the first three minutes of the period while building a 28-21 lead on a Shea basket underneath (she finished the game with 10 points) and two DePrisco free throws.
Torrance, who grabbed seven rebounds Saturday, said, “I think our defensive pressure in the third and fourth quarter was key – we were able to [disrupt] Villa Maria’s offense a little bit.”
For the game, Villa Maria shot 24 percent from the floor.
“We had an exceptionally bad shooting [performance],” said McCartney. “We couldn’t finish, and we missed on a couple of breakway layups. We weren’t patient on offense, we were jacking up too many shots – we actually had 11 more shots than Henderson.
“But give Henderson credit – they played well, they’re well-coached and they made their free throws when they had to.”
In the fourth quarter, Henderson made 13 of 16 free throws.
“It always comes down to fourth-quarter free throws for us,” said DePrisco, who went 7-for-8 from the charity stripe Saturday. “When we need to knock down those free throws late in the game, we do.”
Villa’s Abby Walheim did some sharp free throw shooting of her own midway through the fourth quarter, converting 4-of-4 and scoring six points in a 77-second stretch to cut Henderson’s lead to 30-27.
Down the stretch, Ferguson came up with some big blocked shots, and none were bigger than the Villa shot she repelled with the Warriors leading 31-28. Henderson got the ball, Thompson was fouled and converted both free throws, and the Warriors held a 33-28 lead with 2:33 left.
Thompson increased Henderson’s lead to 35-28 with another 2-for-2 from the free throw line with 1:34 to play, and finished the game 8-for-10 from the charity stripe.
Villa wouldn’t go away. Abby Walheim’s putback cut Henderson’s lead to 35-31 going into the final minute of the game. Walheim finished the game with 12 points.
Another Ferguson block was followed by a Henderson possession, a foul on DePrisco, and a 2-for-2 performance from the line by the senior point guard to give Henderson a 37-31 lead with 58.5 seconds left.
A couple of missed outside shots by Villa Maria were followed by Henderson possessions and resulting Warrior free throws, and as the clock ticked down its final seconds, it dawned on the Henderson players that they were about to capture their first district title.
“At the buzzer, I can’t even describe the feeling – I thought it would feel like when we won the Ches-Mont championship [this year], but it just felt way sweeter,” said DePrisco. “It was the icing on the cake, and we’ve been working for this moment since November 17. So with another goal checked off, it’s amazing for us.”
Thompson said, “When the buzzer sounded, I was in complete shock and joy, and I started crying I think. Those foul shots at the end were so important, and I’m so happy for our team. I love our coaches, and they got us to this point.”
After the game, the Warriors went over to the Henderson student section, then posed for team photos for all the WCH fans.
Torrance said, “It was great to see so many of our students at the game, out there rooting for us. The Temple gym is big, and [our students] did a good job of filling it up.”
West Chester Henderson 41, Villa Maria 32
Villa Maria 10 4 7 11 – 32
West Chester Henderson 8 14 2 17 – 41
Villa Maria (32): Ryan 2 0-0 4, A. Walheim 3 6-9 12, Lauder 4 3-5 11, M. Warley 1 3-5 5,
West Chester Henderson (41): DePrisco 1 7-8 9, Thompson 0 8-10 8, Torrance 1 0-0 3, Shea 4 2-6 10, Ferguson 5 1-2 11.
3-point field goals: Torrance