PHILADELPHIA >> The tattoo on Dayna Balasa’s upper left arm is symbolic.
The Upper Dublin sophomore’s ink, an image of a vintage key, symbolizes the ties that bind her family together. It also symbolized the impact she had for the Cardinals girls’ basketball team on Sunday afternoon against Imhotep Charter.
Balasa hit a barrage of five 3-pointers, each a key contribution at a crucial juncture for a 15-point outing as UD tamed the Panthers 45-33 as part of the Play-By-Play Maggie Lucas Classic at Jefferson University.
“Dayna is such a great shooter, she wanted a couple more of those to go down but to me, she’s as automatic as it gets when she’s open,” UD coach Morgan Funsten said. “It’s a nice thing to have.
“She had a really high basketball IQ and I think she’s starting to relive the pressure of last year. Trying to keep up the high shooting percentage and increasing the volume of shots with teams keying on her was tough early on.”
Balasa and each of her siblings have a similar tattoo of a key, while her mom has the common denominator, a tattoo of a lock. Dayna got hers last March, at the end of a season where she shot 45 percent from behind the line and hit 73 treys to help Upper Dublin win its first state title in girls’ basketball.
News travels, and while Balasa is still firing at a very high clip, teams aren’t letting her just stand there and bomb away from deep. So, the sophomore’s had to adapt and Sunday was a showcase for how much her game has grown on both ends of the floor.
“Whenever Jackie (Vargas) got the ball, I tried to re-locate and get open,” Balasa said. “If they wanted to double-down on her, I wanted to get to a spot where I’d be wide open on the outside.”
Balasa and Vargas tied for the team high with 15 points. While Vargas didn’t directly assist any of Balasa’s shots, all five of her makes from beyond the arc were set up by a teammate and her movement off the ball.
Upper Dublin topped Imhotep at the same event last year, so Funsten knew what style the Panthers were bringing to the table. Imhotep’s guards are athletic, aggressive and relentless and they got right up on anyone handling the ball for Upper Dublin all game long.
It’s not a style the Cardinals see a lot, which is why Funsten put the game on the schedule, and it caused UD some issues for three quarters on Sunday. Last season, the Cardinals struggled late with Imhotep’s pressure, but reversed the script this time.
“We didn’t feel great about ourselves until the fourth quarter when we started to handle the pressure and get some stops on defense,” Funsten said. “They make you pay because of how athletic they are. We have the luxury of having a lot of good players in our program. Jess Polin did a great job and Bliss Brenner off the bench was just solid.”
Funsten is most proud of the strides Balasa has made on the defensive end dating back to last year. While defense wasn’t her forte last December, by the end of the season she’d become much better on that end and a seamless cog in the Cardinals’ strong suit of team defending.
This season, the sophomore’s amped it up a bit more and has recently shown a knack for creating steals off help defense. When provided the comparison, Funsten noted Balasa’s ability to create turnovers reminded him of another sharpshooting guard in Josie Barrett, who forced a ton of help-side steals in her career.
“She really uses her basketball IQ to understand what the other team is trying to do then disrupt things,” Funsten said. “Most of her work is actually done off the ball.”
What UD most needed on Sunday however, was Balasa’s calling card. Although she missed her first two shots, and she had to navigate Imhotep’s aggressive defense, the guard never lost confidence.
After the Panthers got within 16-15 with three minutes left in the second quarter, Jess Polin found Balasa for back-to-back 3-pointers to give UD some needed breathing room. The third quarter followed a similar path, as Imhotep just refused to go away no matter what Upper Dublin did.
“I had to move off the ball more and be ready to shoot,” Balasa said. “I always tell myself I’m going to make the next one and just keep shooting.”
Sarah Eskew fed Balasa for a trey to open the third quarter. The two sophomores have a unique connection of their own. They wear the same shoe size, so for this season they took a pair of all white LeBron Soldier shoes and an all red pair of the same style with each guard taking one of each color.
“We just thought it’d be cool to do it,” said Balasa, who wears a red right shoe and a white left shoe.
Balasa’s fourth three spotted UD a 30-24 lead, which turned out to be a key basket as the Panthers responded to get within four. With her shooting doing enough to keep the offense going, Balasa and her teammates let their defense keep Imhotep from closing any closer.
Upper Dublin engineered enough stops to prop up their offense and when Balasa hit her fifth and final 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter, the Cardinals held a 35-28 lead. Polin hit back-to-back baseline jumpers to put UD up seven and during a late timeout called by Imhotep, Funsten and his team could finally take a breath.
“We talked about having to find a way to get some separation and then get a stop on defense,” Funsten said. “We finally got up nine, they called a timeout and on the bench we just said ‘finally.’ We strung a couple stops together and could exhale a little bit. They went into scramble mode a little bit and I thought we did a great job handling that pressure because it’s not easy to play against that team.”
Balasa said she shoots pretty much every day and the work is clearly paying off in games where she’s shooting better than 45 percent from long distance. With UD just crossing the midway point of its season, there’s little doubt the Cardinals will keep turning to the sophomore for big shots with full confidence she’s going to bury them.
“I remember being asked about her after the second game of the year last year and I used the word ‘fearless’ to describe her,” Funsten said. “Great shooters have that mindset. They know they’re great shooters and she has a quiet confidence about her.”
UPPER DUBLIN 15 7 10 13 – 45
IMHOTEP CHARTER 12 5 11 5 – 33
UD: Dayna Balasa 5 0-2 15, Jess Polin 4 0-0 10, Jackie Vargas 4 7-8 15, Anajae Smith 1 0-0 2, Bliss Brenner 0 3-4 3. Nonscoring: Kara Grebe, Sarah Eskew, Meg Barbera. Totals: 14 10-14 45
IC: Herder 3 2-2 8, Harvey 1 0-0 2, S Smith 2 0-1 4, Carter 0 3-6 3, Haynes 2 1-1 5, Tyler 4 2-2 10, L Smith 0 1-2 1. Totals: 12 10-14 33
3-pointers: UD – Balasa 5, Polin 2