ROYERSFORD >> When Linus McGinty convened the Cardinal O’Hara huddle after three quarters in a tie game Tuesday evening, he had good news and bad.
The bad news was that forward Mary Sheehan had yet to get on track against North Penn in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinal. The good news was that even without her, the Lions were on level terms with eight minutes to play.
And the better news was that a player of Sheehan’s caliber had no intention of continuing to go so quietly.
Sheehan came to life in the fourth quarter, scoring seven of her nine points and powering O’Hara to the state final
with a 48-41 win at Spring-Ford High School.
The District 12 champs (26-3) advance to Friday’s final at Hershey’s Giant Center, where they’ll meet defending champion Cumberland Valley. The Eagles eked by North Allegheny, 43-42, Tuesday night, on a pair of last-second free throws.
Sheehan’s lack of offense stunted O’Hara’s usual dynamism through three quarters. She missed her first seven looks from the field, including three from beyond the 3-point arc. But that didn’t discourage her.
“Everyone was yelling at me to get to the basket, but no one said, ‘Don’t shoot,’” Sheehan said. “And they kept running plays where I was getting looks. I knew eventually, being a shooter, it would fall in. …
“The shooter’s mentality, you’ve just got to say, ‘the next one’s going in, the next one’s going in.’”
The first basket finally went in at 5:16 of the third quarter, getting O’Hara to within 26-20. But North Penn’s lead soon grew back to its highest at eight, 31-24, late in the third.
From there, O’Hara closed the game on a 25-10 run. Two straight buckets by Sheehan — off a feed from Hannah Nihill as Sheehan flashed into the lane, then a triple furnished by Nihill’s dish — ballooned the run to 15-2, putting O’Hara ahead, 38-33.
“It was a wave of relief,” Sheehan said. “At that point, it’s late in the game, but to have it put us up five, that was just great because you go back on defense, and now we have a cushion. It’s a two-, three-possession game. It definitely gives you a little bit of relief and it makes playing defense easier.”
“We believed in Mary the whole entire time,” said Kenzie Gardler, who led O’Hara with 18 points. “Her shots weren’t falling in the first half, but we knew once she kept shooting, they would fall. And the best feeling was seeing her (put O’Hara up five) because she was having such a rough first and second quarter, but she didn’t give up.”
Without Sheehan, Gardler shouldered the load. She hit four triples, including three in a first half where O’Hara couldn’t get much to fall.
The real adjustment, though, was reestablishing offensive balance. O’Hara shot 14 3-pointers in the first half, making just four, all but one from Gardler. The Lions lessened the dependence on the triple in the second half, still taking 11 and making three. But they made seven two-point shots after halftime as opposed to three before half, using turnovers to get into transition and slick ball movement to earn easier looks.
“We relied on the outside shot a little too much,” Sheehan said. “Maybe it was nerves or we didn’t have the legs. So we tried at halftime to say, ‘get to the rim. Get second-chance opportunities.’ So I think we did a better job of driving and kicking or driving and finishing in the lane.”
North Penn’s success was predicated on hanging onto the ball. The Maidens shot 10-for-18 from the field in the first half and finished at 50 percent for the game (17-for-34), but 16 turnovers impeded their progress. Once they cleaned that up, they were able to distance themselves, though coughing up the ball reemerged too often in the fourth.
Irisa Ye converted a three-point play with 4.6 seconds left in the first half to send the Maidens (29-4) into halftime up four, 22-18. Jess Huber, who finished with a team-high 17 points, hit back-to-back shots midway through the third to extend the lead to its largest at eight.
But O’Hara fought back. Nihill did the damage late in the third with a pair of heady drives to the hoop, the last with 14 seconds left following a steal to tie the game at 33.
. @OHaraGirlsBball plays keepaway… wait NEVER MIND! There's Kenzie Gardler wnd Mary Sheehan left alone under hoop pic.twitter.com/KVax3pzT0l
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) March 16, 2016
Sheehan piled on, but O’Hara also had the veteran savvy to prudently suffocate the game. They made six of eight attempts from the line in the fourth, including two clutch connections from Molly Paolino in her first shot attempts of the night. They also extended possessions successfully, still extracting points and denying North Penn the ball. O’Hara yielded points from eight of 11 possessions in the final frame and limited North Penn to a paltry seven field-goal attempts, stemming the tide of their desperate charge before it could even get started.
The payoff was the penultimate step on the long journey of goals that O’Hara has set for itself.
“It’s huge, but it’s not our goal,” Sheehan said. “That was one step along the journey. One step was to get here, and the next step was to get there (to Hershey). But we’re not done yet. We want a state championship.