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De George: Battle-tested and loss-toughened Carroll proves itself when it counts

Cardinal O'Hara's Joanie Quinn, left, goes up for a shot as Archbishop Carroll's Alexis Eberz defends in the first half Monday. . It was a battle to the end as Archbishop Carroll defeated Cardinal O'Hara 31-30 in the PIAA 6A State semi-finals held at Garnet Valley High School Monday evening. (PETE BANNAN-DAILY TIMES)

CONCORD TWP. — The Archbishop Carroll girls basketball team, if you’ll pardon the expression, took it on faith.

Patriots coach Renee Shields had lined up a daunting slate of opponents. The results, geared toward long-term toughness, wouldn’t do much for near-term ego: An 0-4 start, a 2-6 record as Catholic League play opened, a 10-12 regular-season mark. Admittedly, it took patience to understand that the numbers in the win and loss columns, however unfavorably close in magnitude they were to each other, didn’t define the Patriots’ potential.

“We were like, we are good,” Taylor Wilson said, a Hershey bar in her hand and a note of defiance lingering in her voice. “We knew how good we could be, and we just kept practicing every single day to prove it and let it show in the games.”

All those moments of frustration put the Patriots in position to do what they did Monday, springing what could be called a slight upset of Cardinal O’Hara, 31-30, to advance to the PIAA Class 6A championship game.

Cardinal O’Hara’s Molly Rullo, left, and Archbishop Carroll’s Brooke Wilson battle for a rebound in the third quarter of their PIAA Class 6A semifinal Monday night. (PETE BANNAN-DAILY TIMES)

The team that accomplished that feat Monday, sealed by two ice-in-the-veins free throws by Wilson with Carroll down 1 and 5.3 seconds showing on the clock, is much different than the one that dropped a four-point decision to O’Hara on Jan. 26. But it bears the scars of that and 12 other losses, which they used to keep improving.

“Those losses in the beginning of the season helped us so much,” Wilson said. “At the beginning of the year, we get into a game like that – one-point, two-point game – we would’ve lost. But now we’ve learned from our mistakes in those games. A lot of people would let that put them totally down, like, ‘OK this is a wasted season.’ … We just kept fighting.”

The Patriots (16-13) have capitalized on two realities. The first is inherent to the design of the limitless PIAA tournament bonanza: To get into states and have a second season, Carroll’s regular-season form is largely a formality. Their District 12 third-place game was technically win-or-go-home, from which Northeast High went home with a 64-14 loss. You get the impression it might as well have been 80 points.

The second is less likely to spur angry emails. With the near certainty of a second season to learn from the errors of the first, Carroll has that most elusive of commodities: Time. And because it possesses so many multi-sport athletes, the time factor seems magnified.

Carroll hasn’t made a run to the state final in basketball since 2019, losing to Chartiers Valley. But its players have done this in other sports – Courtland Schumacher in field hockey; Meg Sheridan and Brooke Wilson on the lacrosse field – and the process is translatable.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent,” Schumacher said. “Our whole season this year was all about growing as a team together. This year, we played a lot of great teams and we had those tough losses, but I think we learned from them. And we showed that we took that and we went in the gym, worked really hard every single day, and we came out with a W today.”

So you have a team that can deal with seeing a 27-20 lead get whittled away in the fourth thanks to five minutes where neither team scored. A team that didn’t get down when two Molly Rullo free throws with less than a minute left put O’Hara ahead, 30-28, its first lead since 13-12. A team that didn’t wilt when Brooke Wilson – who was outstanding with 16 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two assists – missed a runner in the lane in the final minute and fouled out fighting for the rebound.

And, of course, you have the steeliness from Taylor Wilson to knock down two from the line to send the Patriots to Hershey with all the nonchalance of warmup at a summer open gym.

“Oh, I’m like, she’s got it,” Schumacher said. “Taylor does that every day in practice. She’s going to make them.”

That isn’t hubris; a team that didn’t sniff .500 until the state tournament isn’t one with many chances to puff out its chest. Like everything else from Carroll this season, it’s well-earned.

So, too, is the underdog status they’ll adopt in Friday’s state final. District 3 champion Cedar Cliff will try to close out an unbeaten season, having narrowly escaped District 7’s Norwin, 55-47, in overtime of the western final. That was win No. 30 on the campaign for Cedar Cliff.

It’ll be a tough task for Carroll. But if you had to pick a squad to go into battle with aiming to pull an upset of those proportions, you could do much worse than the scrappy resilience that the Patriots exude.

“If you play a sport and you want to be good at a sport, you have to have a short memory,” Taylor Wilson said. “You have to learn from the mistakes, but then not let it affect you in the future. We’ve all pushed ourselves so hard and the coaches have pushed us so hard because we know what we are capable of.”

Contact Matthew De George at mdegeorge@delcotimes.com. You can follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.

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