BENSALEM >> In a game of predictability, it was an unpredictable move that swung the balance.
Playing for the fourth time this season, the Upper Dublin and Abington girls basketball teams figured they knew all they needed to know about each other. But circumstances dictated a bit of a change on the Cardinals’ end and it proved to be a difference-maker.
It was hard to single out one hero, so the Cardinals gladly settled on sharing the glory as they defeated the Ghosts 41-31 in the PIAA-6A quarterfinals Friday night at Bensalem.
“Our biggest strength is our balance,” UD coach Morgan Funsten said. “It’s what makes us so difficult to play against. I’m so happy for the girls and it’s crazy to think we’re this close again.”
UD defeated Abington in the same gym in the same round a year ago on the way to a state title. The Cardinals will face WPIAL champion Peters Township in the semifinals Monday at a site and time to be announced.
Right after the Cardinals (25-5) began their marathon ride home from Chambersburg after defeating North Allegheny in the second round on Tuesday, junior Jackie Vargas texted Funsten. In her defense, Vargas was all the way on the other side of the bus. Her text was also defensive in nature, as in how would she guard Abington’s standout senior center Kassondra Brown.
The two have met plenty of times but Vargas felt her effort in the teams’ third meeting wasn’t up to par.
“Both of us know a lot about each other but it’s just how the game is,” Vargas said. “The next game can be so different from the last time you played a team, so sometimes you improvise and see what works best at that moment.”
Vargas picked up her third foul with 1.9 seconds left in the first half, meaning her matchup with Brown would have to change. The Cardinals’ 6-foot-3 junior couldn’t play the 6-foot-2 Brown straight-up, so Upper Dublin had to change something.
Just as the third quarter was about to start, Funsten made the move. He had Vargas switch onto Abington’s Cam Lexow while Kara Grebe took up the job of guarding Brown, with UD giving Grebe plenty of help.
If Vargas couldn’t directly guard Brown, at least should could disrupt a lot of the passes that fed the senior center in the post. It also put UD’s longest defender on one of Abington’s best shooters, but Vargas also had to be careful of getting too caught up in following Lexow out past the arc.
“We didn’t think it out, we kind of decided on it quickly,” Vargas said. “It ended up working really well. I had three fouls so it wouldn’t have been best to go on Kassondra because she would just try to draw more fouls me.
“If (Lexow) got the ball, I wanted to close quickly but also stay in between and put my hands up so it would be harder to pass it in because she knows I’m there in the middle.”
“They recognized what we were doing and they wanted to take Lexow further from the basket because they wanted Jackie further from the basket and Jackie, I think, played at just about the perfect distance the entire time,” Funsten said. “Any time Lexow caught the ball, Jackie was in close out range and a lot of times, Lexow passed the ball. When she gets her feet set and is expecting a shot, she’s really good especially from the top of the key so taking that away was big.”
Brown did all she could for the Ghosts (26-5) in her final high school game. The Rhode Island recruit had 20 points and 11 rebounds and shot 8-of-14 from the floor. When she had the ball, she refused to let Upper Dublin stop her even if meant working through double or triple teams in the second half.
For the second straight game in Bensalem’s gym, counting their District 1 semifinal loss to Neshaminy, the Ghosts didn’t shoot well as a team. Outside of Brown, the Ghosts were 4-of-25. Normally strong shooters like Lexow, Tamia Wessels and Miranda Liebtag couldn’t find the mark and the trio combined for just six points.
“They were better than us tonight, it’s that simple and they made a great adjustment moving Vargas to Cam,” Abington coach Dan Marsh said. “We make a couple of those open looks and it’s a different game but we didn’t. Take your hat off to them, this is why they won a state championship.”
Vargas said after a couple losses, including the one to Abington in the SOL tournament and to Spring-Ford in the district quarterfinals, the Cardinals had to re-evalute themselves defensively. The result has been a commitment on that end that’s seen UD limit Central Dauphin, North Allegheny and now Abington in the state playoffs.
Upper Dublin started well, scoring the game’s first six points but Abington scored the last five of the first half to take a 20-16 lead to the break. Brown was rolling at the break with 12 points while UD was 0-of-7 from 3-point territory.
“We don’t win when we score 31 points,” Marsh said. “They handled our pressure, they were better tonight and they deserved to move on.”
Vargas also made a key switch offensively in the second half and it opened up a lot of lanes for UD to get back in the game. The junior started playing out of the high post, with her ability to shoot or drive meaning Abington had to respect her there and in turn, the guards could attack.
Sarah Eskew set the tone right out of the gate, attacking one of those lanes to get a three-point play the hard way. The impact of the play wasn’t lost on Funsten or the Cardinals players.
“Attacking the basket in the second half set the tone and opened some other things up,” Funsten said. “At times we can be just a perimeter team. It was a great take by Sarah, she got her body in between the defender and used her body to protect the ball and finish.”
Jess Polin only scored one point but was instrumental in handling Abington’s pressure, Bliss Brenner brought good defense off the bench while Anajae Smith did the same with rebounding and Dayna Balasa’s shooting proficiency was on full display in the second half.
Balasa scored seven points in the third, including the go-ahead layup and a 3-pointer with five seconds left in the frame. The sophomore’s trey with 2:28 left was the dagger, putting UD up 38-31 but credit for the play goes to Grebe.
Grebe wrangled down an offensive rebound and kicked out to Balasa for the three, a fitting summary for her night filled with a lot of hard work without many points. It didn’t matter, she just did what her team needed.
“Kara Grebe was in tears after the game, as she should have been, because of the effort she puts into this team,” Funsten said. “The performance she had, she had nothing left and just kept giving us more.”
The loss was a sudden and unexpected end for Abington’s senior core. It’s a class that reached states all four seasons they were in the program, won a district title as sophomores and grew leaps and bounds together.
Brown finishes her career as the program’s second-leading scorer. Aside from their numbers, both offensively and defensively, it’s that drive that the program will most need to replace next season.
“They have to learn from their leadership, their perseverance and their work ethic,” Marsh said. “Take a look at Kassondra her freshman year, she transformed herself into my opinion the best player in the state through her hard work. Cam and Miranda were willing to do the dirty work, so they had that leadership by doing. Even Tamia, she made herself a tremendous player this year after a rough year due to injury.”
UPPER DUBLIN 41, ABINGTON 31
UPPER DUBLIN10 6 11 14 – 41
ABINGTON 9 11 2 9 – 31
Upper Dublin: Jackie Vargas 7 0-0 14, Jess Polin 0 1-2 1, Kara Grebe 1 2-2 4, Sarah Eskew 4 1-1 9, Dayna Balasa 4 0-0 10, Anajae Smith 1 0-0 2, Bliss Brenner 1 0-0 2. Totals: 18 4-6 41.
Abington: Kassondra Brown 8 4-6 20, Tamia Wessels 1 0-0 3, Cam Lexow 0 0-1 0, Miranda Liebtag 1 0-0 3, Khalis Whiting 1 0-0 2, Allison Holden 1 0-0 3. Totals: 12 4-7 31.
3-pointers: UD – Balasa 2, A- Holden, Wessels, Liebtag.