UPPER POVIDENCE >> The Pope John Paul II girls basketball team scored just eight points through the first three quarters on Thursday night. But, amazingly, the Golden Panthers were still within striking range of Upper Merion in a game that would decide second place in the Frontier Division and a berth in the Pioneer Athletic Conference Final Six playoffs.
Then the PJP offense, fueled by relentless full-court defensive pressure that forced turnover after turnover, finally began to click. And after a couple of big baskets off steals, two key 3-pointers and numerous free throws, PJP had scored 21 straight points to close out the game for a 31-23 win.
Nadia Platt scored eight for the Golden Panthers (6-3 Frontier, 6-6 PAC, 8-11 overall). Kennedy Coles led the visiting Vikings (6-4, 6-7, 8-12) with 10 points.
“It never seemed insurmountable,” PJP coach Jack Flanagan said of the Upper Merion lead, which started out at 5-0 on the way to 9-2 after a quarter, stood at 16-4 at the half and 18-8 after three quarters and hit its high point at 23-10 with 4½ minutes remaining in the game.
“We just had to work together and make sure we all got open,” said Platt, who scored all of her points in the final quarter.
“We just kind of came together as a team,” said PJP’s Katie Nilles. “The sideline got us motivated. We had to keep taking it to the basket.”
Nilles made two free throws in four tries and Elena Colliluori (6 points) hit two straight at the stripe to begin the comeback. Then Brooke Albeck (5 points) came off the bench and knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the circle to make it 23-17 with 2:27 to go.
Platt drilled another trey from the top of the arc and made a free throw to make it 23-22. Then Rylee Derecola stole the ball and made a layup to give the Panthers their first lead of the night at 24-23 with 55 seconds left.
Platt made two from the line with 30 seconds to go and Albeck stole the ball and scored for a 28-23 advantage with just 13 seconds remaining.
“I just wanted to come out and win for my seniors (Sarah Bell and Morgan Hughes),” said sophomore Albeck, who has played mostly on the junior varsity team this season. “The bench was hyped. The team was hyped.”
The Golden Panthers forced 12 turnovers in the fourth quarter and made 12 of 22 free throws after shooting just one from the stripe in the first three quarters.
“That was one of the hardest defenses we ever played,” said junior Platt. “I wanted to win. It’s Senior Night. We knew we had to bring the score up and the foul shots helped.”
“And one of our biggest comebacks,” added junior Nilles. “Our shots weren’t falling. We had to start running our offense the right way. Then our shots started falling.”
Nilles only managed to get five shots off in the first three quarters, but drove to the basket and wound up shooting eight free throws in the fourth while pulling in four key defensive rebounds.
“She plays 32 minutes a game,” said Flanagan. “She’s the one we get the ball to. She is the most unassuming, hard-working player.”
Albeck played three quarters of the junior varsity game, then made the most of her time on the court with the varsity.
“When the time came, she did what she could do,” said Flanagan. “She practices hard every day. I’m proud of her.”
Olivia Smith had six points and six rebounds for the Vikings, who have a shot at making the District 1-5A playoffs, and Adele Eaton had a game-high eight rebounds.
“They’re a well-coached team,” Flanagan said concerning the Vikings. “They’ve got some really good guards.”
The season has been an up-and-down one for Pope John Paul.
“It’s been a tough season so far,” said Platt.
“We’re trying to come together,” added Nilles.
The Golden Panthers have a rescheduled game remaining on Tuesday against Pottsgrove, which could decide whether or not they qualify for the District 1-4A playoff field. But even if they lose that one and end up in a tie with the Vikings, they will still take the second automatic PAC playoff berth from the division by virtue of having won both games against Upper Merion.
“Survive and advance,” said Flanagan. “It’s what we set out to do. It’s what we had to do.”
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Pope John Paul II