One of the things that has made (12-1) Lansdale Catholic so successful this season is its ability to adapt. The Crusaders can study their opponent, identify their style and find ways to beat them. That strategy has resulted in Philadelphia Catholic League and District 12-4A championships.
For LC to get its third championship of the season, the program’s first state title, the adaptability will need to be at its best against (7-2) Blackhawk. Tip off for the PIAA-4A championship game is set for noon Saturday at the Giant Center in Hershey.
Blackhawk typically plays a fast game, pressing the entire length of the floor to force their opponents into mistakes. In the state semifinals, however, the Cougars switched up their gameplan and packed the paint against North Catholic. The result was a 45-40 win.
Whatever defensive plan Blackhawk goes with, it won’t be anything the Crusaders haven’t seen before. They played an up-tempo Audenried team in the District 12 championship game and scored 85 points. They played an Archbishop Carroll team that slows the game down and beat them twice, 42-39 and 53-39.
“I don’t know which team we’re going to get but we’re going to prepare for both,” LC coach Eric Gidney said.
“It could turn into a track meet. It could also turn into two or three-minute possessions, almost like an O’Hara-Carroll type game like there was on Monday night (in the Class-6A semifinals). We’ll see, but I think the thing about us is we’ve just been able to adapt to the other team’s style of play when need be… I’m excited to see how they’re going to play us and how we’re going to turn around and match that.”
On the offensive side of the ball, senior Gabby Casey excels in any game environment. The PCL Most Valuable Player matched a career-high with 40 points when Audenried tried to speed her up. If a team wants to pack the paint and make her shoot, she can go 4-for-6 from three-point range like she did in the state semifinals against Scranton Prep.
While Casey is the all-time leading scorer at Lansdale Catholic, it’s not a one-woman show for the Crusaders. Senior Jaida Helm and sophomore Sanyiah Littlejohn have been able to run the floor with every team they’ve faced this season. Junior Olivia Boccella and sophomore Nadia Yemola can shoot around a defense that wants to pack it in– Boccella hit five threes in the second round of states and Yemola knocked down three in the semis.
LC is just as adaptable defensively and that side of the ball is a big reason why Gidney thinks his team is playing its best. While there is always room for improvement, holding Allentown Central Catholic and Scranton Prep to 29 and 28 points in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, is impressive.
“That’s the one thing that I adore about this team so much,” Gidney said. “We’re able to pivot and almost change the element of who we are as a team based on our opponent. We knew, especially with the last two games, that they were going to challenge us defensively. Sometimes teams will get caught up in – how do I find ways to get our offense into top gear. We didn’t look at it that way. We looked at it and went – OK fine, they’re going to challenge us defensively, how do we lock them down back in return. To hold our last two opponents to 29 and 28 points, respectively, we’re pretty close to being about as good as we can be right now.”
It’s all five girls that make the defense go, but Casey and Helm help it reach that next level. Casey’s aggressiveness is contagious to her teammates and allows them to create chaos. Helm protects the rim and is one of the best communicators around when it comes to identifying switches and screens.
Beyond that, Helm is one of the leaders in the country at taking charges, according to MaxPreps. Her ability to protect the rim, communicate with teammates and step in to draw charges makes the LC defense a tough one to attack.
“It’s a stat that I probably haven’t bothered to keep in over 20 years,” Gidney said. “All of the sudden a couple games into her senior season here with LC two charges, three charges, a charge this game, there was one game when she drew four. I went, ‘I need to start keeping this as a stat.’
“It just speaks to her mentality. It’s team-before-self, I’m willing to sacrifice and give up my body just to draw this charge… It’s pretty significant and it’s pretty amazing. (In the semifinals) she drew two and she gets more excited about that than I think she does about anything else that happens on the court.”
LC’s defense will meet a solid Blackhawk offense in the final. Cougars senior point guard Kassie Potts can do everything, as she showed scoring 19 points and hitting multiple threes in the semifinals. Freshman post Aubree Hupp had 17 points and junior Alena Fusetti added seven points and eight rebounds. Fusetti is capable of pouring in 20 points on any given night and reminds Gidney of Casey with her ability to score at all levels, rebound and play defense.
Lansdale Catholic’s season ended at the Giant Center last year, losing the state final to Archbishop Wood. Despite going for their first state championship compared to Blackhawk looking for its fifth, experience is on the Crusaders side. Four starters are back from last year’s squad and they’ve proven they can handle the big stage when they won the PCL title at the Palestra. Blackhawk is in the state final for the first time since 2015.
“We’re all business this year,” Gidney said. “We know what it takes to win because we learned last year from our opponent… I just don’t think we’re going to get caught up in the environment because we didn’t really get caught up at the Palestra.”
For live updates during the game, follow Andrew Robinson on Twitter @ADRobinson3.