SAXTON - After losing to Tussey Mountain in two regular-season meetings, Northern Bedford entered Tuesday night's District 5 Class AA semifinal matchup hoping the third time would be the charm.
The Lady Titans had something to say about that.
Second-seeded Tussey went ahead early, watched Northern Bedford take the lead and then used a defensive stand late in the fourth quarter to pull out a 51-44 victory at home to punch its ticket to Friday's championship game.
Tussey will face Conemaugh Township in the 5-AA final at 6 p.m. Friday at Pitt-Johnstown.
"We ended up picking it [defense] up. We slacked off a bit there in the third [quarter], then I thought we picked things back up then again in the fourth," Tussey Mountain coach Todd Gates said. "Our seniors really wanted this, so they picked it up there late in the game. We just played through it and came out on top. At this point, you just want to play one more."
When Northern's Leah Hershberger scored off an inbound play at the 5:16 mark of the fourth to tie the score at 41-41, the Lady Panthers did not get another field goal until Ashley McGhee scored inside with 18.3 seconds remaining.
The drought came courtesy of a Tussey defense that forced 22 turnovers in the game and suffocated Northern Bedford through the first two quarters, then turned it on when the game was on the line.
Tussey (18-5) relied on its defense late even more so because it went to the free throw line 12 times in the final 1:08 - knocking down just two of the first six, before finishing the last 14.4 seconds with a 4-for-6 showing to set the final.
"We knew coming in it was going to be tough to play them the third time this year. The game could have gone either way there," Northern Bedford coach Todd Eckenroad said. "We fought back there in the second half. No doubt about it - they played their hearts out."
The initial quarter was a defensive battle as both squads' pressure limited the amount of shots that were taken as Tussey escaped with a 10-8 lead through one.
"The first half, I thought, our defense was as good as we could have played. We limited their shots," Gates said.
The second quarter is where the Lady Titans began to assert themselves - mostly notable Morgan Lemin. The senior, a matchup nightmare, drove by the taller NBC defenders and went over anyone else in scoring six hard-earned points that allowed her Titans to grab a 25-19 lead at the break.
"Morgan Lemin, they [Northern] don't have somebody to match up with her," Gates said. "We knew that the first two meetings and then again tonight. They can't guard her."
It looked to be more of the same as Tussey scored the first three points of the third quarter to stretch its lead to 28-19, but the Lady Panthers weren't about to go down without a fight.
A 12-2 run fueled by seven points from McGhee put Northern Bedford on top, 31-30, with 3:29 left in the third.
Six lead changes and three ties was the story leading up to the finish as both teams scrapped, clawed and fought to earn a title shot.
"With the 3-pointer, six points isn't much," Eckenroad said. "My goal for them at halftime was to either take the lead or get within one [by the end of the third quarter]. We had some momentum there, and the fourth quarter was just back-and-forth before we had to start fouling."
Lemin, who led all players with 18 points and had a team-high 11 rebounds, carried her team in the second half with nine points. McGhee did her best to keep the Panthers close with five of her 14 points coming in the fourth. Hershberger, who fouled out with 48.9 left in the contest, also contributed 14 points.
The third-seeded Lady Panthers, closing the books on an 18-6 season, had a 39-29 rebounding edge as two players, Briana Beach (13) and McGhee (11), had double-digit rebounds.
NORTHERN BEDFORD (44): McGhee 5 3-6 14, Cottle 1 1-2 4, Hershberger 5 2-6 14, Smith 1 0-0 2, Beach 4 0-1 8, Potter 1 0-0 2, Drenning 0 0-0 0, Cronrath 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 6-15 44.
TUSSEY MOUNTAIN (51): Abbott-Watkins 1 1-2 3, Runk 4 2-7 12, Lemin 7 4-6, 18, Gates 3 3-4 9, Foster 1 2-6 4, Claycomb 0 0-0 0, Rupert 2 0-0 5. Totals: 18 12-25 51.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Northern Bedford8 11 15 10-44
Tussey Mountain10 15 10 16-51
3-point field goals: Northern Bedford 4 (Hershberger 2, McGhee, Cottle); Tussey Mountain 3 (Runk 2, Rupert).
Records: Northern Bedford (18-6); Tussey Mountain (18-5).
Officials: Don Gibson, Barry Saylor, Justin Fisher.