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Downingtown East, Henderson, Villa Maria set to tip off in state openers

Ches-Mont League girls’ basketball champion Downingtown East, making its first appearance at States since 2016, is in some ways a mirror image of its opponent in Friday’s PIAA 6A state tournament opener, District 3 runnerup Dallastown.
The YAIAA Division I champion Wildcats (24-3) have a similar half-court style to the Cougars (20-8), based on patience.
“We’re both selective in our shots from half-court, and defer looking for the layup in our half-court offense,” said Downingtown East’s fourth-year head coach Tom Schurtz. “Dallastown limits their mistakes and shows tremendous patience on offense. In the full court, we’re a little more wide-open than they are.”
The Cougars, the No. 8 seed in District 1 6A, are slightly more prolific in the scoring column (48.9 points per game) than Dallastown (48.1 ppg).
Leading the attack for Downingtown East is 6-foot-5 Bella Smuda (20.1 ppg, 11.8 rpg. 5.8 rpg), complemented by guards Caroline Brennan (8.4 ppg, 2.3 apg, 2.1 spg) and Lauren Kent (6.4 ppg, 3.1 apg).
The Wildcats’ leading scorers are 6-foot-3 junior Aniya Matthews and 6-foot senior Samantha Miller.
“Dallastown is long in the post and solid at the wing position, presenting [possible] match-up problems with their size inside and their quickness at the wing,” noted Schurtz.
The Wildcats’ chief calling card is their defense, as they’ve allowed only 33.4 points per game.
“Dallastown’s success on the court is predicated on their defensive intensity,” noted Schurtz.
Friday’s game will tip off at 7:30 p.m. at West York High School – a venue where the Cougars defeated Red Lion, 51-45, in a showcase game Jan. 5.
“When our girls saw that they would be playing their state opener at West York, they were excited,” said Schurtz. “It’s not very often that you get to play a state playoff game in an arena where you’ve already played that season.”
Another plus for the Cougars is their improvement during the 2018-19 season. After starting the campaign 0-3, averaging 25 turnovers a game, Downingtown East has cut its turnovers in half, winning 20 of 25 games and, in mid-February, the Ches-Mont League tournament championship.
“We set several goals in the pre-season – one was to win the Ches-Mont championship, and another was to qualify for States,” said Schurtz, whose Cougars narrowly missed the state tournament last year, losing by five points to Central Bucks East in the District 1 6A 11th-place game.
Schurtz sees a lot of small factors determining the Cougars’ success Friday.
“So often teams seem to focus on large and flashy elements to a game, but since both of our teams share a similar style in the half court, I think the keys to winning will be the myriad of little facets – boxing out, being strong with the ball, completing passes, and avoiding unnecessary fouls,” said Schurtz. “We believe that it will be attention to sound fundamentals that will lead to success. Dallastown is a great team and, for us, finding a way to win will have to be based on staying focused on the details that defined our style of play this year.”
Another Chesco girls’ basketball squad also will travel to West York High School, on Saturday – West Chester Henderson, the No. 4 seed from District 1 5A. The Warriors (19-7) will take on District 3 runnerup Gettysburg (22-6) in a PIAA 5A state tournament opener at 3 p.m.
Leading the way for Henderson is senior Grace Ferguson (12 ppg, 13 rpg, 4 bpg), complemented by sophomore Molly Manion (10 ppg).
“Molly’s got good body control, she can create, get to the basket and she’s got a nice touch for the basket,” said West Chester Henderson head coach Greta Neff.
Another potential ace in the hole for the Warriors is senior guard Erin Thompson, who has returned from an ankle injury suffered earlier this season. Thompson, who will be playing basketball for Catholic University next winter, often displayed a clutch touch during the Warriors’ undefeated run to the state quarterfinals in 2017-18. In the District 1 5A quarterfinals Feb. 22, she scored 11 points in a low-scoring 29-27 win against Pope John Paul II that clinched a spot in States for Henderson.
“We are really playing some good defensive basketball and sharing the ball on offense,” said Neff. “When we can push the ball and get some spacing, our kids are utilizing their skills to get to the basket.”
Gettysburg features a potent attack with a variety of scorers that includes 5-10 junior forward Taylor Richardson, junior guard Cheyenne Proctor and freshman point guard Anne Bair.
“Gettysburg is very disciplined and it will be a challenge for us to slow them down offensively,” said Neff. “We need good rebounding, so we can limit Gettysburg to one shot and get extra shots on offense. We can’t just rely on Grace for rebounding.”
Villa Maria Academy, fresh off its decisive 61-37 win against Mount St. Joseph in the District 1 5A championship final Saturday at Temple University, has compiled an impressive 24-4 record this winter.
But according to Villa Maria head coach Kathy McCartney, the Hurricanes need to think of their record as 0-0 as they face Elizabethtown (17-10), the No. 8 seed in District 3, in the PIAA 5A state tournament opener Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Spring-Ford High School.
“I told the team that we’re starting another five-game tournament,” said McCartney. “We gave them Sunday and Wednesday off, but otherwise we’re preparing as we normally do.”
Leading the way for the Hurricanes this winter have been their two career 1,000 point scorers, 6-foot senior Abby Walheim (Villa Maria’s all-time leading scorer) and 6-foot-1 junior Paige Lauder, who reached the milestone in the District 1 championship final Saturday.
When asked what aspect of her team’s play has improved the most this season, McCartney responded, “Our half-court offense. We put in some new sets early this season that took a while to learn, but I think our kids have really gotten acclimated to them now.”
McCartney is particularly impressed with Elizabethtown senior guard Marena Lonardi, a career 1,000 point scorer who has committed to play at Lock Haven.
“She’s a handful, we’ll need to defend her [well],” said McCartney. “Elizabethtown is a very well-coached, disciplined team.”

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