WEST CHESTER – A glance at the score may indicate a poorly played, sloppy girls’ basketball game. But in actuality, Friday’s District 1 5A quarterfinal clash between Pope John Paul II and host West Chester Henderson featured more terrific defense than anything else.
And the final play of the game was certainly befitting what had taken place over the previous hour or so. Clinging to a two-point lead and time running out, Warriors sophomore forward Molly Nanni forced a turnover as time expired to give Henderson a razor-thin 29-27 triumph over the Panthers.
“We all know Molly has long arms and it was an amazing steal,” said teammate Erin Thompson.
The third seeded Warriors (19-6 overall) are the defending district champs, and the win propels them into a Tuesday contest against second seeded Villa Maria at Harriton, with the winner earning a spot in the final.
“These girls know what it takes,” said Henderson head coach Greta Neff.
“We’ve worked hard for this and it’s a dream come true for all of us,” added Thompson, who scored eight of her team-high 11 points in the second quarter.
Played in a tight scoring window throughout, it is surprising that the Warriors never trailed in this one. The 11th seeded Panthers gained possession two times with a chance to tie it or go ahead in the final 1:39, but Henderson got a pair of stops.
“We put so much of a focus on defense in the past five years – that’s what we know,” Neff said.
The first came with 53 seconds on the clock on a block and rebound by senior center Grace Ferguson. And after a missed Henderson free throw, Nanni tipped the ball loose from PJP’s Kallan Bustynowicz and corralled the loose ball just as the final buzzer sounded.
“I knew I had to keep her in front of me,” Nanni re called. “I kept my hands down and she crossed the ball over and I got a hand on it.”
Pope John Paul (15-11 overall) will play Harriton on Tuesday in the third place game, which will decide which team earn an invite to the PIAA Tournament.
“One of our goals is to get to states,” said PJP head coach T.J. Lonergan. “Tuesday is win or go home. We’ve been in those situations before.”
Thompson scored five points in a row in a frenzied 52 second span early in the fourth quarter to put the Warriors in front 29-21 with 6:01 to go. And even though Henderson did not score another point, they still managed to hang on.
But not before the Panthers staged a comeback on inside buckets by Bustynowicz and two by point guard Elise Sylvester. The last points of the game came on a double clutch score by Sylvester with 3:34 to go.
“There was a lot of good defense and that made for some tough shots and they didn’t fall for either of us,” Neff said.
“Defensively, I couldn’t ask for more,” Lonergan added. “We did everything we could at that end, but indicative of the last play of the game, we just weren’t as aggressive offensively.
“Credit to Henderson, they came out and just blitzed us with their size. We were back on our heels instead of attacking.”
These two played a similarly low scoring regular season game back on Jan. 26, with Henderson winning 44-41. And if there was a question as to whether this was going to be another defensive struggle, it became obvious when the two teams combined to score just nine points in the second quarter.
“It was a really intense game,” Nanni said.
“(PJP) is quick and we knew that heading in,” Thompson added. “I’m glad we were able to step up to the competition.
“We knew they were coming for us, but we were coming right back at them. It was definitely a battle.”
The Warriors scored the first seven points and the last five to take a 13-7 lead through one quarter. And even though Henderson went scoreless for nearly seven minutes, it still didn’t surrender the lead as the Panthers were also having offensive issues.
“I think (Henderson’s) height defensively really gave us fits,” Lonergan said.
Bustynowicz paced PJP with 11 points and Sylvester added eight.
West Chester Henderson 29, Pope John Paul 27
POPE JOHN PAUL – Sylvester 3 2-4 8; Jennedy 1 0-0 3; L. Ciuba 2 0-0 5; Bustynowicz 5 1-2 11. Totals 11 3-6 27.
WEST CHESTER HENDERSON – Thompson 3 4-6 11; DePrisco 1 0-0 3; Nanni 1 0-0 2; Manion 1 0-0 3; Ferguson 3 1-2 7. Totals 9 5-8 29.
Pope John Paul 7 5 8 7 — 27
W.C. Henderson 13 4 6 6 — 29
Three-pointers: Kennedy, Ciuba, Thompson, Meredith, Manion.
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