Manheim Township celebrates its Lancaster-Lebanon League title as Cedar Crest players Nichole Wagner (3) and Alyssa Austin (43) walk off the court in
Manheim Township celebrates its Lancaster-Lebanon League title as Cedar Crest players Nichole Wagner (3) and Alyssa Austin (43) walk off the court in Neffsville. (Jeremy Long - Lebanon Daily News)

NEFFSVILLE - The lane was clogged, and the perimeter shut down.

That left the free throw - emphasis on "free" - line as the path of least resistance for the Cedar Crest girls' basketball team.

It was a path not only to the required number of points to solve Manheim Township's extraordinarily stingy defense, but also to a deeply-coveted Lancaster-Lebanon League title for the upstart Falcons, making an unexpected L-L championship game appearance.

That was the path, but one Cedar Crest was unable to follow.

Township is now 25-0 and the undisputed league champs for a number of reasons after Friday night's 42-34 title-game triumph over the Falcons in its spacious Neffsville gymnasium.

There was the aforementioned lockdown defense, as well as the 30 combined points by the twin towers frontcourt of seniors Alex Leslie and Kaitlyn Van Tash.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, there was one other reason: Ghastly 8-for-19 free throw shooting, including a fate-sealing 5-for-15 start at the charity stripe.

An eight-point loss and 11 missed free throws. Suffice it to say no one needed to tell Cedar Crest coach Jim Donmoyer or his squad to do the math.

"We couldn't make foul shots," said a grim-faced Donmoyer, shortly after emerging from the locker room. "We make foul shots, we win the game. The first half we were 1-for-5 from the foul line, and we missed nine layups. The second half I don't know how many layups we missed, but we missed a lot of foul shots.

"But it's not just one thing that beat us. They're a good team, they beat us three times (this season). They're better than us."

On the other side of the free-throw coin, the Blue Streaks were a championship-like 13-for-17, including 11-for-13 in the fourth quarter when the admirably feisty Falcons were making an ill-fated comeback bid.

Cedar Crest’s Emily Wagner, left, and Alex Rich tie up Manheim Township’s Jamie Relin for possession of the ball on Friday night.
Cedar Crest's Emily Wagner, left, and Alex Rich tie up Manheim Township's Jamie Relin for possession of the ball on Friday night. (Jeremy Long - Lebanon Daily News)

"It's something we stress," Township coach Sean Burkhart said of big-game free throw shooting. "We talk about the importance of foul shots at practice and how key they can be. In a game like tonight that was probably the ultimate difference."

The free throw woes first cropped up in the second quarter after the Falcons (19-6) had inched their way to a 6-5 first-quarter lead on two buckets from freshman center Alyssa Austin in the final 43 seconds of the period.

But four free-throw misses and a nine-point quarter from Van Tash allowed Township to take an offensively-challenged 17-11 halftime lead.

The 6-foot-3 Leslie then picked up the baton in the second half, tallying 13 of her game-high 17 points, including two early buckets that allowed Township to take a double-digit lead and permanent control of the contest.

"They got us down there for a little bit, but we kept coming back," Donmoyer said. "We didn't quit. The kids won't quit. They play hard, they play together. They're not gonna quit on me, and I'm not gonna quit on them."

The Falcons proved Donmoyer right, making a push late in the third and shortly after Van Tash (13 points) gave Township a 25-14 lead with 3:13 left in the period.

Rachel Miller started the surge with five straight points to cut the deficit to six by the end of the third, and Austin (10 points) added a free throw 38 seconds into the final quarter to trim Township's lead to 25-20.

But the points came in small doses, with the Streaks shackling Crest's normally potent 3-point shooting in much the same way they did during a pair of narrow regular-season wins.

The Falcons’ Abby Munnion battles the Blue Streaks’ Caitlin Schultz in the low post on Friday during the L-L League championship game.
The Falcons' Abby Munnion battles the Blue Streaks' Caitlin Schultz in the low post on Friday during the L-L League championship game. (Jeremy Long - Lebanon Daily News)

The Falcons did manage two 3-pointers — by Emily Wagner and Alex Rich in the second half — but most of the night struggled mightily to even get a good look at the basket from the perimeter.

"I think after the first half of the first game we realized how we needed to play the perimeter," said Burkhart. "The first time we played them here, they hit a bunch of 3s in the first half and went into halftime with a lead. We were able to neutralize it in the second half that night, and for 32 minutes at Crest. Luckily we only had to do it for 32 minutes tonight."

Having Leslie around didn't hurt, either. The Streaks' post force bumped the lead back to 29-22 with 5:08 left before sitting for a stretch late with four fouls.

But the Falcons couldn't take advantage, although they hung around enough to still be within four at 35-31 on an Austin put-back with 46 seconds left.

Township ultimately put it away at the foul line, canning 11 of 12 attempts in the final 2:07 to keep the young Falcons from grabbing the league crown a little before their time.

"This is their year, obviously," Donmoyer said. "But we'll all be back. Tonight wasn't our night, we didn't make foul shots. We make foul shots, we're definitely in the game. But all the credit to them, they're unbeaten for a reason."