READING - Even though, for better or for worse, the end is undeniably near when the state playoffs begin, basketball teams that care as much as the Northern Lebanon girls do never see it coming.
So they fight, and they scratch and they claw against that inevitability, determined to delay it as long as possible and maybe become one of the lucky ones that get to conclude their journey on their own terms and with a state championship trophy raised high over their heads.
It was not to be for the Vikings, for teams like Gwynedd Mercy have those same desires. And the District 1 reps fulfilled one of them Sunday afternoon at Santander Arena, ending Northern Lebanon's thrilling two-year run of unparalleled program success with a dramatic 43-42 victory.
But before the Vikings' ride came to a sudden stop, they left an unforgettable memory for the faithful to cherish, a stirring comeback from a 32-22 late third quarter deficit that pulled them to the brink of another epic victory. But with a cold-blooded corner jumper in the dying seconds, Gwynedd Mercy's Carly Heinaman rewrote the fairy tale script and lifted her team to their own unforgettable triumph.
It was both the best and worst way for Northern Lebanon to go down. With huge hearts broken but swinging all the way to the ground.
"What's difficult is seeing my little girls in pain," Northern Lebanon coach Ken Battistelli said after emerging from a distraught postgame locker room scene. "I've been living in denial for so long that this would end some day that I haven't really figured that part of it out yet. But they're sad, and that makes me really, really sad."
Nonetheless, that sadness was also interrupted by considerable pride when talked turned to the furious comeback fronted by the heart-and-soul senior trio otf Zoe Zerman, Megan Brandt and Amber Kintzer.
Like the rest of the Vikings, the three struggled mightily for the first three quarters against a quick and savvy Gwynedd attack led by Heinaman's game-high 18 points.
But after a HeInaman jumper had NL (27-3) mired in a 32-22 rut with 1:37 left in third, Zerman, Brandt and Kintzer stepped to the front, combining for 15 of the team's final 20 points, including the last nine.
Among them were Kintzer's three-point play off an offensive rebound that tied the contest at 38 with 2:11 left. And Brandt's power post move that gave NL its first lead with 1:17 left. And Zerman's get-out-of-my-way-drive to the that made 42-41 Northern Lebanon with 23.5 seconds left.
"There's only so many ways for a season to end that a coach can live with," Battistelli said. "This game showed how my little girls have played basketball for their whole careers. They struggled so much in that first half and for three quarters, and they just fight and they came all the way back."
And came within a long 2-point jumper by Heinaman of finishing the job one more time. Determined to not allow a drive to the basket on Gwynedd's final possession, the Vikings succeeded. But that left Heinaman with just enough daylight to get off her game-winning shot from the corner that found nothing but net.
"That girl made a huge shot," Battistelli said. "I told them, 'We are not letting them get to the rim. If one of their kids steps up and hits a bomb to win the game, we're gonna have to live with it.' And that's what happened."
Afterwards, the Vikings exited the arena in stunned silence, tears welling in some eyes. But in the final analysis, there was far more reason to smile than to cry.
"They just kept giving and giving and giving until they burst," Battistelli said, summing up both Sunday's game and the last two seasons, during which NL went 55-7. "These kids, time and time and time again have risen to face any challenge. When you think they can't try any harder, they try harder. When you think they can't be any more focused, they focus more.
"They're not perfect, but man, are they something special."
Gwynedd Mercy (43)
Heinaman 7 2-3 18, Conroy 4 2-5 10, Casey 2 1-2 5, Dougherty 1 2-2 4, Senour 1 0-1 2, Flannery 1 0-0 2, Cattie 0 2-2 2. Totals: 16 9-15 43.
Northern Lebanon (42)
Ray 0 0-0 0, Voight 2 0-0 5, Brandt 5 1-3 11, Kintzer 2 4-5 8, Zoe Zerman 4 3-6 11, Zara Zerman 1 5-8 7. Totals: 14 13-22 42.
Gwynedd Mercy 13 12 7 11 - 43
Northern Lebanon 9 7 9 17 - 42
3-point field goals: GM - Heinaman 2, NL - Voight.