HOLLAND — In the coming days, Mary Sheehan, Hannah Nihill, Molly Paolino and the rest of Cardinal O’Hara’s underclassmen will look to the future and realize the best is yet to come.
Friday night was not one of those times.
The District 12 champions had their 2014-15 season end at the hands of Palmyra, 54-42, at Garden Spot High School Friday night.
It’s a safe bet the Lions (22-6) will be back in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal round next year and beyond. But Friday’s loss was tough to swallow because the Lions wanted to continue playing for Maeve Heneghan, the team’s only senior. Heneghan got into the game with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter for her final varsity action.
Sheehan and Co. had said all along they wanted to keep winning for Heneghan. Unfortunately, the Lions ran into a team just as hungry. The Cougars (27-4) advanced to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals one year ago, and are poised to make it to Hershey’s GIANT Center next week for the Class AAAA championship game.
“Definitely tonight, they played the better game. I saw a lot of ourselves in what I want this team to be in the future, from a discipline standpoint,’ said the sophomore Sheehan, who scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds. “The way they move the ball and play for each other, I think that’s what we can do. It hurts really bad right now, especially losing Maeve. Even though she’s the only girl we lose next year, she was obviously a big part of it.’
The Cougars came away awfully impressed with O’Hara, a team that could challenge them in the coming years.
“We knew they were a very, very good team. Everyone can shoot, everyone can score,’ Smoluk said. “They’re kind of like us, but I think what we have over them is experience and we’ve all been playing since elementary and middle school. We knew coming in we would have the experience. The basketball season is long and this is probably some of their first time playing this long of a season. But they’re a really good young team.’
For the Lions, they knew what to expect. Palmyra is a balanced squad, with no one player that stands out above the rest. The Lions have operated that way most of the season, with their starting five of Nihill, Sheehan, Paolino, Kenzie Gardler and Maura Hendrixson sharing an equal role in the offense.
“We definitely knew we’d have our hands full with them. We heard they are amazing on defense and they like to hold the ball, kind of like us in a lot of ways,’ said Nihill, who finished with a team-high 13 points and five assists. “We want to be where they are. We all came closer together this year. All the hype at school before each game, it was a lot of fun. We had the fan buses and got everyone involved. It was a great experience.’
The Lions never hit their stride against the Cougars, who jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the first quarter. It took the Lions nearly four minutes to crack the scoreboard, but they continued to scrap. They scored the last six points of the first quarter, and the first basket in the second period, to pull within two. The Lions, though, couldn’t get any closer.
“As a whole, we knew the way they beat people is all five of them doing their job,’ Sheehan said. “They spread it out, run a great motion offense and they found everyone. They shared the ball real well. There wasn’t really one girl that we focused on stopping, they all can score.’
Each of Palmyra’s starters scored at least seven points. Maria Tukis, who burned Garnet Valley in the first round of states, led the way with a game-high 14 points and Katy McClellan added 12. O’Hara dealt with foul trouble the entire way. Paolino, a freshman guard, was replaced by sophomore Bridgette Hoy, who gave the Lions a big boost off the bench by drilling a pair of 3-pointers in the first half. Sophomore Lauren Leicht provided good defense in reserve duty, as well. Paolino and Nihill eventually fouled out late in the fourth quarter. The Lions attempted just four free-throw attempts, while Palmyra shot 20-of-24 from the line.
“It was tough when me, Kenzie and Mary got into foul trouble. It’s hard to play with that many fouls and play your regular starters,’ said Paolino, who snared six rebounds. “We played with a lot of heart, though, and never quit. “They are a very disciplined team and they played very well. That’s what we’re aspiring to do, to play like them.’
Palmyra worried that O’Hara’s youth would play a significant role in determining the outcome. The Lions were able to storm out to a big lead against Central Dauphin East, a similarly experienced team.
“We said from the beginning that we felt we didn’t have good individual match ups. We knew we were in trouble in at least one or two spots,’ Palmyra coach Ron Berman said. ” I just said to them that we gotta stay in the game, get it to the third or fourth quarter because that’s when our seniors against a young team can make a real difference. We started getting to the foul line and had a couple backdoor plays. I’m not saying they panicked, but they had to foul us early. We’re a 70 percent foul shooting team, so our chances were good. We missed four, but we made a lot.’
“It starts in a couple weeks,’ Nihill said. “We’re not sure if we’re to Florida and Kentucky yet, but we’ll be travelling all over the place. I’m excited for that and continue to get better.’