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Was it first time on the big stage jitters or was the opponent simply too good?

For the Northern Lebanon girls basketball team, the truth could be found somewhere in between.

The Vikings saw a few nightmares slip into their dream season for the first time on Friday night and all it cost them was a shot at their first Lancaster-Lebanon League title.

Rattled and unsure of itself for the first time this season, Northern Lebanon fell into a 27-12 first-half hole and couldn’t fully escape on the way to a 46-34 loss to perennial power Lancaster Catholic in the L-L title game at Warwick.

Bothered badly by the Crusaders’ smothering, helping man-to-man defense and freshman phenom Kiki Jefferson’s game-high 16 points, the Vikings’ deficit grew to 35-14 early in the third before their admirable fighting spirit made it a game again until the waning stages of the final quarter.

The comeback bid, similar to the one it waged in a 53-49 regular-season loss to Catholic, seemed to represent a moral of victory of sorts.

And  it might have if the Vikings, led by Zoe Zerman’s 11 points and a warrior-like 10-point effort from Megan Brandt, had simply been happy to be there. But they weren’t. They wanted more and Lancaster Catholic just wasn’t having it.

“I have no idea,” NL coach Ken Battistelli said, when asked what caused his normally unflappable group to lose its way. “None whatsoever. If I had to guess I’d say it was the big stage. We were out of whack. They’re aggressive and tough, but we thought we were prepared. We weren’t right.”

But Catholic most certainly was, particularly on the defensive end in the first half, clogging passing lanes and forcing rushed shots aplenty.

A balanced attack led by Jefferson and 10 points apiece from Lauren Mills and Annaliese Schreder certainly contributed to the 15-point separation in the first half, but the defense was unquestionably the key to it all.

“I was so proud,” Catholic coach Charlie Detz said of his club’s defensive work. “We went out and executed the game plan to perfection and did what we wanted to do to them. It was just a credit to those seven girls that played in the first half. They did everything we asked.”

But it wasn’t quite enough to completely put away the feisty Vikings, who found their misplaced competitive fire, if not their best form, after intermission.

“The second half was by no means good, but just by a little change in attitude we got more,” Battistelli said. “We still didn’t execute at any stage, but just by a little shot of aggressiveness many better things happened.”

It looked like all was lost after a Julia Breit free throw made it a 35-14 Catholic lead with 4:23 left in the third.

But Cassiah Ray and Liz Voight responded with back-to-back 3-pointers to spark a furious 18-3 spurt that culminated with a Brandt free throw and a 38-32 game with 3:18 left.

“We got up 21 and then we just relaxed,” Detz said. “And they hit two 3s in transition and the next thing you know it’s at 15. That just brought them completely to life.”

But coming all the way back was too much to ask on this night, with 6-for-15 foul shooting and too many wasted possessions adding to the Vikings’ woes.

For Catholic that meant a 12th league title to celebrate. For Northern Lebanon, it meant a trip back to the drawing board and a potential second-round meeting with the Crusaders in the District Three AAA playoffs next Saturday.

“I would think in a month there might be a silver lining,” Battistelli said. “But not right now.”

Lancaster Catholic 46, Northern Lebanon 34

Lancaster Catholic (46)

Kiki Jefferson 7 1-5 16, Caroline Scarff 0 0-0 0, Lauren Mills 4 2-2 10, Julia Breit 2 2-4 6, Annaliese Schreder 4 1-2 10, Corina Rivera 1 2-4 4,, Lillian Fritz 0 0-0 0. Totals— 18 8-17 46

Northern Lebanon (34)

Cassiah Ray 1 0-0 3, Liz Voight 2 3-6 8, Megan Brandt 4 2-4 10, Amber Kintzer 1 0-0 2, Zoe Zerman 4 1-5 11, Raeann Lessing 0 0-0 0, Jenna Wentling 0 0-0 0, Emma Kelliher 0 0-0 0, Addison Wallace 0 0-0 0, Kaylee Mauser 0 0-0 0. Totals—  12 6-15 34.

Northern Lebanon _ 4 _ 8 _ 13 _ 9 _ — _ 34

Lancaster Catholic _10 _ 17 _ 10 _ 9 _ — _ 46

3-point goals— LC 2 (Schreder, Jefferson), NL 4 (Zerman 2, Ray, Voight.0

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