Of all the basketball coaching tricks perfected by Muffet McGraw, none has been more handy than knowing when to hide the net-cutting scissors.
While her confidence and competitive coaching streak became legendary from her legendary team at Archbishop Carroll in 1979 through two NCAA championships at the University of Notre Dame, McGraw has always realized that the climb begins long before anyone drags a ladder onto a confetti-littered court.
That’s what happened Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center after the Hall of Fame coach helped keep her 1979 Patriots perfect with a 47-46 victory over the 1993 Cardinal O’Hara team in the championship game of the mythical Delco Madness tournament to reveal the best girls high school basketball team in Delaware County history.
She waited her turn to climb that ladder, to snip the last strand of twine and to twirl it over her head in celebration. She waited until tournament MVP Ann Troyan, who had just fed Sandy Ranieri for the game-winning layup, had a chance to reach that top rung too. She waited for every member of her long-ago Catholic League championship team to enjoy basketball elation, most likely for the last time.
She waited for the history to breathe.
And that was her plan all along.
Though aware that her Patriots had completed a 28-0 season with unofficial Catholic school national champion honors, McGraw famously announced before the Delco Madness event that, “We’re the underdog. And that’s the position I want to be in.” Her patience established, McGraw turned the championship game into an old-fashioned Catholic League test of wills.
Respecting the deep supply of O’Hara scorers, and with her team still more confident in the pre-three-point-line style, McGraw’s plan was to limit possessions and allow few second shots. The tactics would conspire to leave the Patriots in business for a predictably memorable finish.
After Chrissie Donahue swished a turn-around 10-footer in the lane to give O’Hara a 46-45 lead with nine seconds left, Troyan pushed the ball to the front of the Carroll bench, where McGraw aggressively gave the time-out signal as the clock flicked to 0:04.
Quickly installing a sideline out-of-bounds play often executed successfully by the California Dreams during her professional playing career in the WBL, McGraw had Claire Rose screen for Troyan, who received the inbound pass from Ranieri. From the triple-threat position, Troyan took one dribble toward the free-throw line and pump-faked. When the Lions’ defense flinched, she hit Ranieri, who had sneaked in undetected for the horn-beating, back-door layup.
Don DiJulia, the longtime Saint Joseph’s athletic director who enjoyed watching the Big 5 Hall of Fame playing career of McGraw (as Muffet O’Brien) at 54th and City Line, resisted cheering from his press box seat, but his smile said plenty. So did the roar of the capacity crowd of 20,230.
“When we played, you couldn’t go to the state tournament,” McGraw said. “And that was disappointing, because we had a really good team.”
Times change and the Catholic League has become involved with the PIAA. But for the second time since winning the league championship, the Patriots added to their legend. The first was in the Georgetown Big Brothers postseason tournament in Washington, D.C., where eight top Catholic school teams from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and D.C. had assembled for a national-championship-style event.
The Patriots defeated St. Hubert’s both in the Catholic League final and the Big Brothers tourney. Each game was its own challenge. But the mock struggle with O’Hara’s 1993 power gained instant status as the most vigorously contested girls game in Delaware County history.
Though the Lions were limited to 14 first-half shots, Ann Gallagher helped make them count, assisting on every O’Hara basket, including a pick-and-pop three-pointer from Marnie McBreen to force a 23-23 tie just before intermission.
Brandishing a 31-0 record and entering as a two-point betting favorite, second-seeded O’Hara would use a 12-3 run late in the third and early in the fourth to earn a 40-38 lead on 6-2 freshman Trish Halpin’s old-fashioned three-pointer with 2:30 left.
“She was great all year,” said Donahue. “She took a lot of pressure off of me.”
But it was Donahue who completed her game-high 20-point effort with the go-ahead bucket, so convincing the O’Hara fans of victory that a half-dozen blue streamers were tossed on the floor from behind the Lions’ bench.
As the refs tactfully ignored that outburst, Carroll hustled itself in position for McGraw to scribble the deciding X’s and O’s. When Ranieri scored, the bottomless knowledge of the bracketologists who’d made Carroll the No. 1 seed was illuminated.
Troyan finished with 19 points and 16 assists. Claire Rose chipped in with 10 points and 10 boards. McBreen tabbed 17 for O’Hara.
With the MVP Troyan, Donahue, McBreen, Gallagher, Fredia Gibbs of Chester (1981) and Helen Koskinen of Archbishop Prendergast (1985) made up the All-Tournament team.
With the confetti needing a floor-length sweep and the rims requiring fresh nets in time for Monday night’s Delco Madness boys final between Chester’s 1983 and 2012 state championship teams, the Patriots and their fans took their celebrating to Radnor, where a horn-honking parade of cars disturbed residents well into the night.
As for Muffet McGraw, who always knew how to play it cool, she just tucked those scissors away for whatever underdog achievement may come next.