ROYERSFORD — March Madness might be still be a few weeks away, but you would have never known it Wednesday night.
Penn Wood, the 13th seed, found itself firmly in the role of bracket buster against fourth seed and defending state champion Spring-Ford in a District 1-AAAA girls basketball tournament second round game that featured roller coaster-like ebb and flow.
For most of the game, the Patriots looked nothing like heavy underdogs — opening a mind-boggling 17-point lead late in the third quarter thanks to the prime-time play of Dahnye Redd and Lorna Caesar.
And if the Del-Val League champions could have found a way to shorten the game, they might well have come away with the upset of the tournament.
Over the final eight minutes, however, the Rams erased a heretofore subpar effort with a sublime one in storming back for a 55-49 victory that earned them their third straight trip to the PIAA Tournament.
Shelby Mueller finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds; Sammy Stipa delivered 10 points, including a couple of game-turning 3-pointers to close out the third quarter; and Maggie Locke hit the go-ahead jumper in the final minute as the Pioneer Athletic Conference and two-time defending district champ Rams (21-5) advanced to a quarterfinal meeting against fifth seed C.B. West (a 59-47 winner over Methacton) at home Friday at 6 p.m.
Penn Wood, which got 19 points from Redd, 14 points from Caesar and 16 rebounds from Indiah Cauley, visits 12th seed Methacton Saturday in the playback round.
"We didn't know how we were going to do it,' said Mueller, a 5-foot-10 senior forward. "But we knew we were.'
The Rams, who routed Chester 77-19 in the first round, got it done thanks to a turnover-fueled 32-point explosion over the game's final 8:10.
When Patriots sophomore guard Gabrielle Hairston nailed a baseline 3-pointer with 30 seconds left in the third quarter, Penn Wood had a seemingly commanding 40-23 lead. The Rams, who had been beaten to the punch all night to that point, were staggering and ready to fall.
But Stipa — a first-team all-state pick last year — refused to let that happen.
The 5-5 senior nailed two 3s in a span of 10 seconds to get the Rams within 40-29 after three quarters. Then Mueller began the final frame with a three-point play that continued a 13-point tear capped by Abby Beyer's transition hoop off a fullcourt pass from Stipa that cut it to 40-36.
"Those 3-pointers were really important,' Locke said. "They pretty much sparked our offense and we got going after that. When we see Stipa going and see what she can do, we know we can do it too.'
That proved to be the case, with rotation members Beyer, Amy Roth, Julia Roshelli, Sydney Wagner and Emily Walker all pitching in to the pitched battle.
"It just became a sense of urgency, a sense of desperation,' Spring-Ford coach Mickey McDaniel said. "They finally had a realization that they had to take care of business or they were going to be playing in the playback round.'
Penn Wood grimly clung to the lead deep into the fourth quarter, taking a 48-45 lead on 1-of-2 foul shots by Hairston with 1:33 left.
Mueller answered with a follow less than 10 seconds later, before the Rams forced one of Penn Wood's 32 turnovers (20 coming in the second half) to set up Locke's 8-foot jumper that put the Rams up to stay at 49-48 with 51 seconds left.
"Turnovers killed us,' Penn Wood coach Monique Boykins said. "You can't dribble through a press. We missed the extra pass, and I believe that's what slowed us down when they did apply more pressure.'
Roshelli canned two foul shots and Mueller tacked on 1-of-2 from the line to make it 52-48 before Caesar hit 1-of-2 free throws to get Penn Wood within 52-49 with 17 seconds left.
But Stipa and Roth combined to go 3-fo-4 from the line over the final nine seconds to close out the crazy comeback.
"I think it was everyone stepping up and saying, '˜Guys, we can do this,'' said the 6-foot Locke, who finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
"We didn't stop,' Stipa said. "Going into the fourth quarter we were frustrated and we could have just given up, but as a team we knew we had to come out and play our game and get out of that funk and find a way to win, and we were able to finish it.'
"We didn't want this game taken away from us,' echoed Mueller, "and in the fourth quarter we definitely pressured the ball and forced them into turnovers and finally finished our shots. They (the Patriots) were a very aggressive, scrappy team. They gave us a good run for our money.'
Though Penn Wood came heartbreakingly close to a program-defining victory, Boykins said she couldn't be more proud of her squad's gritty effort.
"Honestly I'm very happy,' she said. "Last year we won the Del-Val and lost to Neshaminy in the first round. Our goal this year was to win the Del-Val and pass the first round (of districts) and we did that. Now we have to win two games to get to states, and I think we're ready for that.'
The Rams, on the other hand, got a first-hand lesson in the meaning of "Survive and advance.'
"It was rough,' Mueller said. "It wasn't pretty.'
Though it ended up pretty memorable.
Spring-Ford went 12-for-17 from the line in the fourth quarter and 15-for-22 for the game. ... The Lafayette-bound Stipa also had four rebounds, two assists and four steals. ... Redd had nine rebounds and six blocks for Penn Wood. She went 8-for-13 from the field and 3-for-4 from the line. ... Rebounding was dead-even at 36-36.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.