The maturing Beavers jumped out to a 17-3 lead, then survived a Lebanon comeback bid to earn a spot in tonight's championship game.
Learning to close out a game is one of the hardest things for a young basketball team to learn how to do. Given that it is the reigning District Three Class A champion, it's sometimes easy to forget that the Lebanon Catholic girls are still a young team.
But as they proved on Monday night, the Beavers are getting the hang of what it takes to finish off an opponent.
In this case it was crosstown rival Lebanon in the opening round of the Cedars' holiday tournament.
Catholic sped to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter, then took its foot off the gas for a time before finishing the race in control and with a 51-45 victory that served as an important step in its ongoing maturation process.
It also gave Patti Hower's underclassmen-dominated squad (6-3) a title shot at 7:30 p.m. tonight opposite Manheim Township. Lebanon gets Garden Spot, which fell to Township 60-36, in the 6 p.m. consolation clash.
"Definitely," Hower said to the notion that the Beavers enjoyed a learning experience throughout the contest. "We did not play well in that second quarter, but we hung in there, had a little bit of a lead at halftime, then came out strong again in the second half. I think that says a lot. They could have folded and panicked on Lebanon's home court, but they hung in there."
The Beavers, led by 18 points from Neesha Pierre, were razor-sharp early, attacking the basket and knocking down jump shots while building a 15-3 lead after the opening quarter with the help of a pair of Mariah Sholly 3-pointers.
The advantage grew to 17-3 on a Jayden Shellehamer fastbreak bucket 27 seconds into the second quarter, before Lebanon stormed back behind the defensive intensity of Alexis Hill to pull to within 22-17 at the half and 22-19 early in the third quarter.
"One thing I'll always say about Lebanon kids, they're never gonna quit and give up," Cedars coach Ben Brewer said. "They come out fighting, and they fought back. But (Lebanon Catholic) was clearly the smarter, better team. We had some poor fouls and poor decision making and they were able to capitalize."
The foul difficulties were lethal because they cost Lebanon Hill, who picked up a costly third foul with 44 seconds left in the first half, her fourth 1:22 into the third quarter, and eventually fouled out with 2:26 left.
Lebanon got nice efforts from point guard Maddy Hartman (13 points) and Ary'Anna Ortolazo (nine points) to help the cause, but Hill's foul trouble combined with Catholic's emerging savvy was too much to overcome.
"It definitely helped that she was in foul trouble," Hower said of Hill, "but I thought we did a pretty nice job on her. I know last year she toasted us. Their outside shooters kinda kept them in it, which I haven't seen from them this year. I think they learned something, too, that when she's in foul trouble people have to step up."
Pierre led the key second half stretch, a 13-3 burst over the last six minutes of the third quarter that included six points from the sophomore slasher, who played a fine game at both ends, and gave Catholic a 35-22 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Cedars would whittle the deficit down to 42-36 on an Ortolazo bucket with 2:28 left, but from there Sholly hit a pair of free throws, then set Celine Mars up for a layup and one to push the lead back to 11 with 2:11 to go.
"Playing in games like this," Hower said of the biggest key to becoming comfortable with closing games out. "We can simulate it in practice a little bit, but it's not the same. This is definitely gonna help us down the road. We had a lead, we had to take good shots, we had to stop a star player. It was good."
Lebanon, Lebanon Catholic 51, Lebanon 45
Lebanon Catholic (51)
Sholly 3 3-7 11, Pierre 7 4-8 18, Warren 4 2-4 10, Mars 3 2-4 8, Shellehamer 2 0-0 4 Totals — 19 11-26 51.
Hartman 4 2-2 13, Truax 2 0-0 4, Houser 0 0-2 0, Hill 2 7-7 11, Ortolazo 2 5-6 9, Turner 2 2-2 8, Mann 0 0-0 0, Arenas 0 0-0 0, Duefel 0 0-0 0. Totals — .12 16-19 45
Lebanon Catholic _ 15 _ 7 _ 13 _ 16 _ — _ 51
Lebanon _ 3 _ 14 _ 5 _ 23 _ — _ 45
3-point goals — LC: Sholly 2, L: Turner 2, Hartman 3
Other score — Manheim Township 60, Garden Spot 36.