O’Hara battles back from deficit to advance

MILLERSVILLE — Members of the Cardinal O’Hara basketball team are probably tired of hearing how young and inexperienced they are.

Now might be the time to stop mentioning the youth factor altogether.

Coach Linus McGinty has stuck with his starting five all season: Three freshmen (Maura Hendrixson, Kenzie Gardler, Molly Paolino) and two sophomores (Hannah Nihill, Mary Sheehan), all of whom are guards and exciting to watch.

They say age ain’t nothing but a number, right?

The Lions hit their midseason lull in February, losing three in a row to Catholic League foes. But since winning the District 12 championship, they have seemed to right the ship and are living up to those lofty O’Hara girls basketball expectations. And through two rounds of the PIAA Class AAAA tournament, those super-talented underclassmen keeps getting it done.

Tuesday night at Penn Manor High, the Lions claimed a 53-48 victory over Central Dauphin East, District Three’s third-place team. It was arguably O’Hara’s finest win of the season, erasing a six-point halftime deficit and overcoming a poor night shooting from the floor.

O’Hara advances to the quarterfinal round Friday night to play District Three runner-up Palmyra, which defeated Mount St. Joseph, 57-38.

Gardler drove to the hoop for an and-one play to put O’Hara in the lead to stay, 41-38, midway through the final quarter. Moments earlier, Nihill had a textbook pick and breakaway to even the score.

How the Lions (22-5) reached that point is a testament to a team that is growing up together and has seemingly learned the errors of its way.

The game had its usual ebbs and flows. O’Hara was in full-on attack mode at the start. Applying a suffocating full-court press, Nihill had four of her eight steals in the opening stanza. Paolino hit a pair of 3-pointers and Sheehan had two field goals. O’Hara jumped to a 13-2 advantage as CD East was forced to spend two timeouts figuring out what was going on.

“Our press worked tremendously in the first quarter. That’s what got us our lead and gave us the momentum early on,’ Gardler said. “But we then had some problems.’

The Panthers eventually settled in after realizing what hit them and, in time, began to wear down O’hara with its size. Sheehan, who had 11 hard-nosed rebounds, did everything she could to match up with the lengthier Brittany Robinson (13 points, 14 rebounds).

In the second quarter, O’Hara couldn’t buy a shot. The Lions made one field goal and scored six points. CD East seized control with a 25-9 run, including a 10-0 burst. At halftime, O’Hara was down six points and could go in either direction. But the Lions showed their toughness.

“At the start of the second half, that’s when we all pushed through it,’ said Gardler, who finished with five points, four rebounds, two assists and one steal. “We did everything we could to (battle) with them.’

Instead of folding, as most young teams would, the Lions rallied in the third quarter and got within two points at the start of the final period.

“We came out with this little chip on our shoulder that I think we haven’t had in a long time,’ Sheehan said. “We came out in the beginning of the season with it, because everyone thought of us as underdogs. Then we played well and everyone was saying that we’re for real, but we lost that edge. In practice, we’ve been working harder at being more of a scrappy team, improving our mental toughness.’

Sheehan, per usual, had the perfect words to describe O’Hara’s performance. The Lions dove for every loose ball and didn’t let a cold spell from the floor deter them. They put their speed, sound defense and crisp ball movement on display, and even when they fell behind, never rattled. The sure tell signs of a veteran squad at work.

“We know (Robinson) was really talented. We saw her spin off girls, even with a body on her,’ Sheehan said of CD East’s big girl. “We came out in a box in the beginning and tried to pressure their point guard (Dominique Thomas) and everything went through her and No. 14 (Robinson). We didn’t necessarily try to stop them, but we wanted to contain them and make sure they didn’t have big games.’

Paolino finished with a game-high 14 points and hit two free throws in the fourth quarter. Hendrixson (nine points, six assists), Nihill (12 points, eight steals) and Sheehan (13 points) made all but one of their free-throw attempts down the stretch.

“We’ve practiced less with this team than we have in 21 years, just because we’re so young,’ McGinty said. “But they played with a lot of heart tonight.’

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