BRYN MAWR >> A challenging start to the month of February got the Pope John Paul II girls accustomed to facing obstacles. So by Tuesday, a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit didn’t seem like too big of a deal.
The 11th-seeded Golden Panthers staged an improbable 4th-quarter comeback to best seventh-seeded Harriton, 41-32, Tuesday afternoon, clinching a spot in the 5A state tournament, set to begin next week.
It’s Pope John Paul II’s first trip to states in the 5A classification, which debuted with the 2016-2017 season.
“They’ve been doing it all year — against some tough teams in our conference, and here today,” said first-year head coach TJ Lonergan. “Tonight, our defense was so strong that we could keep (Harriton) at bay, and that late run put us over the top.”
For most of the game it appeared that Tuesday might be the end of the road for PJP, who registered only five field goals in the first three quarters.
But the Panthers (16-11) exploded on a 15-0 run in the fourth quarter, taking their first lead since the opening minutes and ultimately pulling away from the host Rams.
Senior guard Elise Sylvester led the Panthers with 16 points — including a remarkable 10-for-10 mark from the foul line down the stretch to ice the contest. Fellow senior Lauren Ciuba added 12 for victorious PJP.
“Our defense motivated our offense,” Ciuba said. “Our intensity on that (defensive) side of the ball pushed us, then it all started clicking once the shots started to fall.”
“We settled down,” added Sylvester, “and started to realize where the good shots were coming.
“Like Lauren said, defense led to offense, and that takes the whole team’s effort.”
The contest marked PJP’s sixth in a row away from home, including all three district playoff games to this point. Friday’s fifth-place game, for determination of seeding for states, will also be a road contest for the Panthers.
The Panthers have shown resilience throughout coach TJ Lonergan’s first season at the helm, but saw their resolve tested after a February 7 victory over Owen J. Roberts in the Pioneer Athletic Conference Final Six playoff tournament. Following the game, a video was posted on social media showing team members singing along to a popular song with explicit, racially offensive lyrics. Pope John Paul II administration suspended the team and Lonergan for one game — a PAC semifinal loss to Spring-Ford.
“Going back to the Owen J. Roberts game, that win was so big for our team mentally,” said Lonergan. “It showed we can pull out a big game against a tough team, and that’s done wonders for our confidence ever since.”
“We rally around each other,” added Sylvester. “We’ve come together as one — it’s not about any one person.”
“We’ve really come together as a team,” Ciuba concluded. “And it shows during games like today, our bond becomes stronger.”
The fourth-quarter run started on Ciuba’s second 3-pointer of the game, and continued on her short bank shot. Kallan Bustynowicz added an old-fashioned three-point play before a Tess Crossan putback knotted things up with just under four minutes to play. After scoring 15 points in the first 25 minutes, it had taken the Panthers less than three minutes to string together a 10-0 run to tie the game at 25.
But they weren’t finished, as Sylvester canned a deep 3 to get the lead at 28-25, then knocked down the first two of her 10 successful free throws in the quarter to stretch the advantage to 30-25. Reilly Short’s jumper brought Harriton within three, but the damage was done to the tune of a 15-0 run.
Sylvester took it from there, knocking down eight more free throws as Harriton tried fruitlessly to extend the contest.
PJP started districts by surprising sixth-seeded Great Valley, and took No. 3 West Chester Henderson to the limit Saturday, ultimately succumbing 29-27 to set up Tuesday’s contest with Harriton. They’ll play Radnor (a 58-52 playback winner over West Chester East) on Friday to determine their seeding for states.
Freshman Annie Aspesi led the way for Harriton with nine points. The Rams’ defense was the story of the first three quarters, limiting PJP to 12 percent shooting in the first half. Christina Brown, playing her final game for the Rams, added six points, including a layup to open the fourth quarter that gave Harriton its largest lead (10) before the PJP comeback.
Tuesday’s loss marked the end of a bounce-back season for Harriton (14-10), a young team who sees brighter days in their none-too-distant future.
“We have kids playing significant roles who were in middle school last year,” said Harriton coach Chris Wielgus. “Today is disappointing, but it galvanizes and motivates us going into last year.”
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