Northern Lebanon s Morgan Phillips, right, tries to keep the ball out of the grasp of Lebanon Catholic player Holly Marinkov on Friday night in
Northern Lebanon s Morgan Phillips, right, tries to keep the ball out of the grasp of Lebanon Catholic player Holly Marinkov on Friday night in Fredericksburg. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS GLEN GRAY)
FREDERICKSBURG - There's no denying that Northern Lebanon is a better girls' basketball team when senior point guard Emily Brandt is on the floor, as she was on Friday night for the first time since suffering a torn ACL on Dec. 21

There's also no denying that the Vikings somehow became a better, stronger, more confident team while Brandt was absent.

That much was apparent in Friday's lopsided Section Three-Four crossover battle with Lebanon Catholic.

With Brandt returning to the fold in a reserve role - and with a bulky brace protecting her damaged right knee - Northern Lebanon continued the inspired play it had mostly produced since their best player and leader went down, excelling in all phases of the game en route to a convincing 53-31 victory over the Beavers at Northern Lebanon High School.

Not a lot of people witnessed what was arguably the Vikes' most impressive performance of the season, given the much-anticipated boys' hoops battle between the schools that was taking place on Assumption Hill.

But if anyone wants a detailed breakdown of the 22-point win, Northern Lebanon's fiery head coach Ken Battistelli will be happy to oblige.

Be forewarned: He'll be saying, 'I love this team' a lot. And why not, after watching his team (9-5, 6-3 Section Three) go a very respectable 4-3 without Brandt and nearly knock off unbeaten Lampeter-Strasburg on Wednesday?

"I don't know how else to say it right now, I'm loving my team," said Battistelli. "They're playing their living guts out. It's fun right now."

"Inserting Emily (back into the lineup) adds more depth to a team that needs depth. But we don't rely on any one (player) anymore, as you can see. I won't pretend that I wasn't petrified from the moment she went down, but that very first game (without Brandt), they fought for her. And since then they've been learning how to fight without her."

Lebanon Catholic and head coach Patti Hower can confirm that the Vikes are now tough to handle both with and without Brandt on the floor.

For the following reasons on Friday:

  • Senior center Kristen Lessing led the way with 16 points, all in the second half while dominating the paint over the last two quarters.

  • Taylor Smith set Northern Lebanon on its path to victory with all seven of her points in a two-minute span in the first quarter.

  • Mariah LiBrandi, Brandt's replacement at point guard, was superb with 12 points and strong all-around play, and role-playing guards Morgan Phillips and Morgan Hollis combined for 10 points.

  • And, oh, by the way, Brandt tallied six points via a pair of nothing-but-net 3-pointers and provided a steadying presence from the second she entered the game late in the first quarter.
    The Vikings  Mariah LiBrandi tries to drive through a Beaver double team that includes Catherine Gross, right, on Friday night.
    The Vikings Mariah LiBrandi tries to drive through a Beaver double team that includes Catherine Gross, right, on Friday night. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS GLEN GRAY)

    "Northern Lebanon made us not play great," said Hower, whose squad fell to 8-6 overall and 4-5 in Section Four while seeing its three-game win streak halted. "They beat us in every phase of the game. They were more intense than us, they played excellent defense, they took us out of everything we wanted to do.

    "They shot the ball well, they ripped the ball out of our hands when we got a rebound. They just beat us in every phase of the game and were deserving of a 20-point win."

    Of all the many things it did well on Friday, on defense was where the Vikings really shined.

    It all began with a swarming effort every time Lebanon Catholic's go-to-girl, senior forward Abby Shay, touched the ball in the paint or on the baseline.

    Though Shay finished with 15 points to outscore everyone but Lessing, she had to fight tooth and nail for every single one of them, and was never able to find a comfort zone with the ball in her hands.

    And when they weren't clamping down on Shay, the Vikes were making life miserable for the rest of the Beavers, pressuring ballhandlers and contesting shooters at every opportunity.

    "Lebanon Catholic is so well-coached," Battistelli said. "Patti coaches her team so much better than I'll ever be able to coach. But all that execution needs timing to function. My kids wanted this bad, so let's make it a battle. Go play defense like it's your job. That was our game plan - just go out and fight the whole length of the court.

    Northern Lebanon’s Emily Brandt, who returned Friday night following a knee injury, plays defense against Lebanon Catholic’s Holly Marinkov.
    Northern Lebanon's Emily Brandt, who returned Friday night following a knee injury, plays defense against Lebanon Catholic's Holly Marinkov. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS GLEN GRAY)
    "

    Needless to say, that approach worked pretty well. North Lebanon didn't trail again after Smith banked in a "3" for a 4-2 lead midway through the first quarter, and the lead was permanently stretched to double digits when LiBrandi buried a "3" of her own for a 19-7 lead with 5:00 left before halftime.

    Catholic made a bid to get back in the game in the third, trimming what had become a 17-point deficit down to 35-24 on a Shay free throw with 20 seconds left in the period.

    But LiBrandi found Lessing for a layup just before the third-quarter buzzer, and Brandt drained her second "3" of the night 39 seconds into the fourth quarter to turn the contest into a rout again.

    "I was pretty much disappointed in our lack of intensity early on," Hower said. "We're not the type of team that can get in a hole and press people (defensively, to come back), because we just don't have that type of speed. But that's a credit to Northern Lebanon, they played a very good game and took us out of our game."

    Not that Battistelli or his team backed off in the intensity department after the outcome was essentially decided.

    "I know I'm nuts. Everybody tells me I'm nuts," Battistelli said with a self-deprecating smile. "But this is my team and I love 'em. They're fighting like tigers for me, so I'm gonna fight like crazy. Because right now, this is fun to be with them.

    "We're practicing hard, we're playing our guts out. I love it."