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Boccella’s deep 3 decides PCL championship classic as Lansdale Catholic downs Archbishop Wood for first title

The Lansdale Catholic girls basketball team celebrates with the Philadelphia Catholic League championship trophy after defeating Archbishop Wood 50-47 in the final on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

PHILADELPHIA >> Gabby Casey went to the Palestra on Monday to do two things: Chew gum and win a Philadelphia Catholic League championship.

The former was never in doubt, the Lansdale Catholic senior constantly working a piece of gum while driving to the rim, shooting from distance and snaring rebounds as she does every game, a habit. As for the latter, no player or team in LC history had done it so chances were it was probably going to take something pretty special to do it, especially with an Archbishop Wood team that’s no stranger to PCL title games waiting on the other side.

Casey chewed her gum and won a PCL championship, the senior making the pass that led to Olivia Boccella’s incredible game-winning three as the Crusaders led, fell behind and rallied to top the Vikings 50-47 in an all-timer on the hallowed Palestra court Monday night.

“I did see her open and Liv can hit that shot all day, trusting her with the ball is so big and it went in, which is amazing,” Casey said. “She’s such an amazing player, an amazing shooter and that was the key to the game.”

Boccella, who shares Casey’s affinity for gum-chewing during a game, got hot in the Crusaders’ semifinal win over Archbishop Carroll, didn’t cool down in the title game as she led LC with 17 points. None were bigger than the last three, coming on an audaciously deep three from about 25 feet away on the left side that arched so high it seemed to disappear into the Palestra ceiling before falling through with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

All Boccella could do was raise her arms to the sky, spin around and trot back up the court. It wasn’t until after the game that the 5-foot-5 guard had a chance to watch film of the play and realized how far out she was.

“Nothing was going through my mind,” Boccella said. “That was the most incredible feeling ever, I really don’t have the words.”

Lansdale Catholic’s Olivia Boccella celebrates after cutting a piece of the net to celebrate the Crusaders’ Philadelphia Catholic League championship on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

Ok, that’s fair, there was a lot going on, plus a whole lot more that had already gone on. But how about finally stepping onto The Palestra court?

“This was everything I thought it would be,” Boccella said.

For a first-time entrant in a PCL championship, Lansdale Catholic looked pretty at home in the first quarter, zipping out to leads of 6-0, 10-3 and 16-5 in the first eight minutes, taking advantage of a Vikings team that opened 2-of-15 from the floor. While Wood was in its third PCL title game in the last four years, it was their first time at the Palestra in four and none of the team’s players currently on the roster from that last visit had played on the historic floor.

Aside from six early points from Kara Meredith, and even three of those were banked in, not much had gone right for Wood as LC opened up a 24-8 lead midway through the second quarter on a drive by Casey, LC’s all-time leading scorer giving her squad what would be its biggest lead of the night.

“We came out really strong at the beginning, hitting all our shots and that gave us a ton of confidence,” Casey, who tallied 15 points, said. “The second half, the momentum switching back and forth, it’s tough but we had trust in each other, we love each other so much on and off the court and that helps us so much to trust each other and make shots.”

It took all of 14 seconds after that for Wood to finally settle in. Deja Evans drew an and-one, then scored again in the post and Meredith sank back-to-back threes for an 11-0 run in 1:51 of game time that had LC’s once mighty lead down to just five points. Meredith was fantastic for Wood, scoring a game-high 19 that featured the Holy Family recruit sinking five 3-point shots.

The Vikings are too good of a team to fold after a rough start and even despite Boccella canning a three in the waning seconds of the first half to stem the run and give LC a 27-19 advantage, there was a lot of game left. To that end, the Vikings opened the second half much like they’d closed the first, ripping off an 11-0 run fueled by two Meredith stick-backs, two Ava Renninger dishes to Evans — who had 10 points and eight rebounds — and finally a three by Renninger that gave Wood its first, improbable, lead at 30-27 at the midpoint of the third.

Lansdale Catholic’s Olivia Boccella (11) goes up for a shot against Archbishop Wood during the Philadelphia Catholic League final on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

For all the heart and grit the Vikings showed to get back in the game, coming up a bucket short seemed especially cruel, but there was no doubt their efforts had led to an all-time game.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we talk about it all the time in that way,” Wood coach Mike McDonald said. “To come down here, it’s one of the most attended events, basketball-wise in the country, so for a high school kid to experience this, even with the pain and hurt they’re feeling right now, it’s still incredible and to come out and play as well as we did throughout the game, the way we battled, I’m just super-proud of them.”

The squads traded leads until Renninger, who was fantastic for Wood with 11 points, four assists and four steals, turned one of those swipes into a pull-up three in front of her bench for a 36-35 lead. Evans followed by splitting a pair of foul shots, then Emily Knouse showed poise beyond her sophomore class standing at the end of the quarter, stepping-back and shot-faking a defender by her before drilling a buzzer-beater three for a 40-35 lead.

A drive by Renninger put Wood in the lead 44-37 with 5:56 left, LC suddenly looking a long way up from it’s once seemingly commanding lead. Then, Sanyiah Littlejohn found Casey in the corner and the senior connected on the three to kickstart LC’s own comeback.

In the regular season, Jaida Helm had been a major factor in the Crusaders’ win at Wood but the senior hadn’t quite put that impact into Monday’s game. So when Casey found her at the top of the key, the senior knocked the three and later, she would be the one to tie the game on a drive with 1:19 with an earlier jumper giving her seven key fourth quarter points and 12 for the game plus eight boards.

Lansdale Catholic’s Olivia Boccella (11) shoots a 3-pointer against Archbishop Wood during the Philadelphia Catholic League final on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

“I played my game and I stuck to it, being aggressive instead of being too passive,” Helm said. “I knew they needed me, so they trusted me and got me the ball and hit the shots.”

Helm, Casey and Boccella scored every point for LC in the fourth quarter, a performance not lost on their coach.

“It wasn’t uncharacteristic for Liv to hit a big shot, something she’s known for, for Jaida to have that instinct ‘my team needs me,’ for Gabby to be the force that she’s been, you saw three players do exactly what they’re known for in the final two to three minutes,” Gidney said.

Lansdale Catholic’s Jaida Helm hosts the Phladelphia Catholic League championship plaque as the Cruaders celebrate after their 50-47 victory over Archbishop Wood in the final on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

Littlejohn only scored one point, but the sophomore had a major impact on the game that included a pivotal defensive play with 1:04 left where she dove on the floor to create a steal and get the ball back for LC. Gidney opted to hold off calling a timeout as the clock wound down, Wood making a switch in its defense as Casey held the ball on the left side.

“It was, obviously in hindsight, a bonehead mistake by me to go 1-3-1, I wanted to see if we could force them into something, that shot and where she shot it from, it was fortunate but the wrong kid, just the wrong kid we made shoot the ball,” McDonald said. “She was feeling it and had the hot hand. On the fly, that’s not my kids’ fault, it’s my fault and I’m going to have to live with that for a long time.”

Lansdale Catholic’s Jaida Helm (2) shoots a 3-pointer against Archbishop Wood during the Philadelphia Catholic League final on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

Casey lofted a pass out to Boccella, the junior guard almost loading up the shot in a split-second that felt much longer before firing the game’s pivotal shot.

Some people can’t manage to walk and chew gum. All LC’s two resident gum enthusiasts — they both prefer mint flavor — managed to do was combine for the biggest shot in school history.

“They sent the girl over between Sanyiah and Gabby and they didn’t gap Liv as well so I said let’s see how this plays out, what do we have to lose beside a PCL championship,” Gidney said.

Lansdale Catholic’s Gabby Casey (15) drives to the basket against Archbishop Wood during the Philadelphia Catholic League championship game on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

Wood managed one last chance, Evans having to put up a long three at the horn that agonizingly dipped into the rim before spilling out and to the waiting Helm, who threw the ball high into the air as the Crusaders celebrated their first championship.

Four years ago, Casey and Alaina Ciccocelli made a pact to get to the Palestra as seniors. From a 2-11 season in 2020-21 — talk of which Casey and Boccella are ready to put to bed — to champions of the league, it was a goal realized.

All that intensity, plus a long round of postgame interviews, had all but disintegrated Casey’s gum. Luckily, the senior was able to procure a fresh piece because her work wasn’t done for the night.

There was still a celebration to get to.

Lansdale Catholic’s Gabby Casey raies the Philadelphia Catholic League championship plaque as the Crusaders celebrate in the LC student section following their 50-47 victory over Archbishop Wood in hte PCL final on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Palestra in Philadelphia. (Mike Cabrey/MediaNews Group)

“It’s been tough going through all the ups and downs, but it’s made us who we are,” Casey said. “Going from 2-11 to being at the top of the league, we always knew we could do it. It’s been one heck of a ride and we wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else.”

Lansdale Catholic 50, Archbishop Wood 50
Lansdale Catholic 16 11 8 15 — 50
Archbishop Wood 5 14 21 7 — 47
Lansdale Catholic: Jaida Helm 5 0-0 12, Sanyiah Littlejohn 0 1-2 1, Nadia Yemola 2 0-0 5, Olivia Boccella 5 3-3 17, Gabby Casey 5 3-4 15. Totals: 17 7-9 50.
Archbishop Wood: Ava Renninger 4 1-2 11, Deja Evans 4 2-3 10, Delaney Finnegan 2 0-0 4, Kara Meredith 7 0-0 19, Emily Knouse 1 0-0 3. Totals: 18 3-5 47.
3-pointers: LC – Boccella 4, Casey 2, Helm 2, Yemola; AW – Meredith 5, Renninger 2.

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