COATESVILLE — The Spring-Ford girls basketball team limped into Friday night's PIAA Class AAAA Tournament opener looking more like the proverbial M.A.S.H. unit than the defending state champions.
The Rams were without 6-foot junior forward Maggie Locke, sidelined with a head injury suffered in last week's District 1 championship game.
Their coach, Mickey McDaniel, had to be wheeled in after undergoing surgery Tuesday an Achilles tear that happened during their district semifinal win.
And their star player, senior guard Sammy Stipa, had barely practiced for the state opener against Red Lion.
If that wasn't enough, the sight of the scoreboard early in the fourth quarter had to have the entire Rams squad hurting.
The Lions had rallied from a 14-point halftime hole to take a one-point lead in the final seven minutes and seemingly had favored Spring-Ford on the ropes.
"You could finally see some stress in their eyes,' Red Lion coach Don Dimoff said.
Over the final six-plus minutes, however, the Rams turned that stress into ultimate success thanks to a dominating defensive effort and typically gritty performance from Stipa.
Stipa, battling knee and foot issues, gamely scored a team-high 16 points and Spring-Ford held Red Lion scoreless for a stretch of 6:19 on the way to a 51-45 victory at Coatesville High.
Molly Hynes scored eight points, Amy Roth scored seven points and Shelby Mueller had six points and seven rebounds for the Pioneer Athletic Conference champion and District 1 runner-up Rams (24-6), who advanced to Tuesday's second-round game against District 3 No. 6 seed Mechanicsburg.
Morgan Kuehne scored a team-high 16 points and Courtney Dimoff scored 13 points for District 3 No. 5 seed Red Lion, which saw its season end at 17-10.
"That's been the story of the postseason for us,' McDaniel said of his team's clutch effort in crunch time. "They find a way to gut it out. These kids have hearts so big, and they just keep finding ways to get it done.'
Spring-Ford got it done in the first half impressively, erasing a 4-3 deficit with a 15-point tear capped by Roth's driving basket that made it 18-4 with 5:10 left in the second quarter.
It was 26-12 at the half before the dangerous duo of Kuehne and Dimoff began to heat up and spark a 22-point third quarter outburst that got the Lions within 37-34.
After Stipa opened the fourth quarter by going 1-of-2 from the foul line, Red Lion's Taylor Funke drained two foul shots before delivering a three-point play that put the Lions up 39-38 with 6:38 remaining in the game.
"It was definitely a shock to us,' Stipa said of the blown lead. "It was a struggle.'
Rather than wilt from the adversity, the Rams met it head on.
After dodging a couple of 3-point bids by Dimoff and Kuehne that would have put them four points down, the Rams began to turn up the defensive pressure.
"We knew we needed to clamp down on defense,' said Roth, a sophomore guard. "And that's what we did.'
"I think we just realized that this could have been our last game of the season,' Beyer said. "And we just wanted it more. We came out more aggressive on defense and really battled back.'
Beyer (five points, six rebounds) followed a Roth miss with 4:33 left to put Spring-Ford up to stay at 40-39 and begin a game-sealing 11-0 run capped by Roth's foul shots that extended the lead to 49-39 with 34 seconds left.
The 5-5 Stipa, who missed her first five shots before finishing 4-for-14 from the floor and 8-for-12 from the foul line, was also huge down the stretch with a key steal and layup and two foul shots while playing hounding defense. She finished with a game-high five steals.
"She made some big plays,' Dimoff said of the Lafayette-bound Stipa. "She's tough. No matter how hard we made her work, she found a way to get the ball in her hands at the end. She's a heck of a player.'
"We've seen it for four years,' McDaniel said. "Again, her heart is so huge and so big. She finds a way to get it done. She's just a game. She's a clutch player.'
Spring-Ford also got clutch efforts from reserves Maddie Haney and Emily Walker, who helped the Rams to a 29-22 rebounding advantage.
"We knew with Maggie out we all had to step up our games,' Stipa said. "We're all competitors as a team. We don't like to lose, and tonight we definitely gutted it out.
"It just shows the kind of program we are. When it comes to big situations, we don't step down. We step up.'
Even if the Rams are collectively stepping a little gingerly these days.
Stipa now has 1,311 career points, 26th in area history ... Spring-Ford is 9-1 in PIAA tourney play over the past three years. ... The Rams forced 22 turnovers, while committing nine. ... Funke had 10 points for the Lions, highlighted by a 6-for-6 effort from the foul line.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD