WHITEMARSH — The mission Spring-Ford girls basketball coach Mickey McDaniel laid out to Shelby Mueller and Maggie Locke was not an easy one Friday night:
Shut down Michael Harris, Abington's American University-bound 6-foot-2 center.
But like good soldiers, Mueller and Locke carried out their marching orders with methodical efficiency, and their combined victory in the battle for the interior was a big reason why Spring-Ford won the PIAA Class AAAA Tournament quarterfinal war, 50-40, at Plymouth-Whitemarsh's Colonial Elementary School.
Mueller delivered a game-high 18 points and seven rebounds and Locke returned from a two-game absence due to injury with a 13-rebound, eight-point, four-steal tour de force as the Pioneer Athletic Conference champion and District 1 runner-up Rams (26-6) advanced to Tuesday's state semifinal against District 7 No. 4 seed North Allegheny.
Just as important, the duo limited Harris — who was averaging 14 points per game and had 16 points and nine rebounds in a 53-43 second-round win over District 3 champion Wilson Tuesday — to just one point and an 0-for-9 effort from the floor to round out a front-line frontcourt performance.
"We wanted to beat her to the spot, force her higher and out of her comfort zone, and I thought we did a decent job of that,' McDaniel said.
Mueller and Locke were a lot more than decent in exorcising the District 1 No. 6 seed Ghosts (21-9).
Mueller, a 5-foot-10 senior forward, went 7-for-10 from the field and 4-for-7 from the line despite sitting out a stretch of the third quarter with foul trouble. Locke, a 6-foot junior forward contributed timely baskets, going 3-for-5 from the field, and helped neutralize Harris (12 rebounds) as the Rams enjoyed a 32-24 edge on the glass.
"I'm so happy to be back,' said Locke, who suffered a concussion while diving for a loose ball in Spring-Ford's District 1 championship game loss to North Penn. "It was just really energizing when I got back out on the court.'
"You saw the difference she makes,' McDaniel said of Locke. "She gets rebounds, she can defend and she just makes things happen. Her being back helps a lot with our depth, and you can jut see the energy she brings to the court. She had some awesome rebounds in traffic, and she had some big baskets, too. It's great to have her back.'
McDaniel also felt great to see his squad finally play from ahead after dealing with fourth-quarter deficits in its previous six games.
Mueller opened the scoring with a three-point play 28 seconds in to set the tone, and senior guard Sammy Stipa (16 points) added another and-one to make it 6-0 right off the bat.
The defending state champ Rams opened a 21-12 lead on Mueller's follow in the final minute of the first half, and while the Ghosts got within one on two different occasions, Spring-Ford never trailed.
"We wanted to focus on coming out and getting the lead, and then being strong and consistent and keeping it,' Mueller said. "We definitely wanted to have the lead the whole game, so we didn't have to worry about coming back.'
"What we really talked about since the game the other night (Tuesday's 42-35 second-round win over Mechanicsburg), was that we had to come out and do our ' sting;' come out with high intensity,' echoed McDaniel. "In some of those other games, we hadn't come with that and it put us behind. We want to sting you first and then keep stinging you.'
The Rams, as has been their wont, saved their biggest stings for the late going.
After Leah Simmons' inside basket got Abington within 38-36 with 4:20 left in the fourth quarter, the Rams closed the game with a 12-4 run.
Julia Roshelli started it off by hitting 1-of-2 foul shots, Stipa hit a huge bank off a scramble for a loose ball, Locke drained two foul shots and Roshelli finished a nifty left-handed layup to jack the lead to 45-36 with 1:30 left to effectively settle matters.
"I thought our kids were resilient,' McDaniel said. "Abington's a really nice team. Their kids play hard, and (head coach) Dan Marsh does a super job. We're just thrilled to come out with a win, and now we get to head west and play North Allegheny.'
"These are our last few games, and we want to give it all we've got,' Mueller said. "This is our last chance.'
Spring-Ford, which advanced to the PIAA Final Four for an impressive third straight season, is 11-1 in state tourney play over that span.
"It's so exciting to be there again, you can't even imagine it,' Locke said.
"It's awesome,' said Mueller. "It's a big accomplishment for our seniors, and I'm really excited about it. We're really determined to get back to the ' ship, too.'
Deja Rawls, a junior guard and 1,000-point career scorer, scored a team-high 15 points for the Ghosts, who also got 12 points from Simmons. ... Freshman Maddie Haney came off the bench to grab four rebounds for the Rams. ... There were 47 combined turnovers, with Spring-Ford committing 24. ... The game was a homecoming of sorts for first-year Rams assistant Stacie Witman, a 1,000-point scorer during her high school days at Plymouth-Whitemarsh.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.