LOWER MERION >> If grades were handed out for effort, Maggie McPeak would have passed with flying colors Saturday in a PIAA Class AAA tournament first-round game at Harriton High.
The Bonner & Prendergast junior guard played with abandon, never holding back even though her team didn’t fare well on the scoreboard.
Indeed, the Pandas, who claimed third place in District 12, never had a chance against a Gwynedd Mercy squad that was out for revenge. The District One champion Monarchs suffered a season-ending defeat to the Pandas a year ago in the same game.
It was clear the Monarchs were the better team this time around, cruising to a 58-31 victory, but the seemingly predetermined outcome didn’t dissuade McPeak from giving it her all.
She dove for every loose ball in her general vicinity, played tough defense and grabbed as many rebounds as she could.
“She plays hard all the time,” Prendie coach Tom Stewart said.
McPeak never imagined the Pandas would have ended an otherwise successful season — 16 wins is nothing to sneeze at — with such a lopsided defeat. But the Monarchs didn’t mess around with the Pandas. They applied a fullcourt press from the get-go and kept the pressure on every time Prendie touched the ball.
Led by senior captains Brigit Coleman and Erica DeCandido, the Monarchs hawked on defense and ran their transition game with aplomb.
“Maybe we didn’t do enough homework on them,” McPeak said. “We didn’t even know that they were going to come out and press. It was, all around, our fault for maybe just not paying enough attention. They had their press down pat … and we couldn’t figure out if it was a zone or a man. We just couldn’t get it started.”
By the time the Pandas (16-9) could catch their breath, they faced an 18-0 deficit four minutes and change into regulation.
“It’s hard to get down by that many in that short of time,” said McPeak, who finished with six points (two 3-point field goals) and a team-high eight rebounds.
“I think we dug ourselves so deep of a hole that we weren’t really sure how to get ourselves out. I felt like we were trying to fight back at certain points, but they just kept making their shots and we didn’t have an answer.”
The speed with which the Monarchs run their offense and defense also grabbed the Pandas by surprise.
“They are way faster in real life than on film,” McPeak said. “On film they looked a lot more relaxed, very calm, and they work the ball around a lot. They didn’t look slow, but they were controlled. Today they looked controlled and fast, too fast for us to handle. I mean, they got by us on defense a lot and we didn’t have help side. It was frustrating.”
Junior Caroline Manfre hit a 15-footer to put the Pandas on the scoreboard late in the quarter. The Pandas trailed, 23-5, at the end of eight minutes and were down 38-10 at halftime.
Gwynedd Mercy shot 21 for 37 with its first-team involved for the first three quarters.
“They’re very well-coached and they run their sets real well, and they are very quick,” Stewart said.
The Pandas shot just 4 for 24 in the first half and never improved, although sophomore Jaelyn Durrett (seven points, two steals) gave them a bit of a spark off the bench.
Princess Clemons was limited to just seven points in her final high school game. The Pandas also missed sophomore Nyah Garrison, who suffered a season-ending injury Jan. 14. Injuries were the story for the Pandas in each of the last two seasons. Last year they were able to stem the tide until Alyssa Monaghan recovered, and they made a run to the quarterfinals of states.
But as they missed Garrison and, for a two-week stretch, promising freshman guard Maeve McCann, the Pandas never quite hit their stride.
“Missing Nyah was really big for us because she was our leading scorer. And for Maeve, this is only her second game back,” Stewart said. “But we have all of them coming back except Princess. Hopefully things will be a little bit better for us.”
The Monarchs were poised to avenge that bitter defeat to the Pandas last winter. Coleman led the way with 18 points and six rebounds, while DeCandido added 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Gwynedd meets Greencastle-Antrim of District Three in the second round Wednesday.
‘We want to go all the way, so having this first game be against a team that ended our season last year gave us a huge push to get us through this tournament and have success,” DeCandido said. “Our mentality was definitely to go out for revenge.”