Hollidaysburg Area's second-half swoon and struggles in tight games had Lady Tigers girls basketball coach Deanna Jubeck concerned enough that she called a long team meeting late in the season following her team's fifth loss by five points or less.
The remedy was simple: If the Lady Tigers had problems in close games, they just wouldn't play close games. They responded by winning their last three contests of the regular season by an average of 25 points.
"We just kept saying, 'The real season starts in March; the record doesn't mean anything,''' Lady Tiger junior point guard Hannah Mercer said. "It's getting the medal that matters.''
Mirror photo by Patrick?Waksmunski
Hollidaysburg’s Ashley O’Donald catches and spins a leaping Hannah Mercer during the postgame celebration.
The Lady Tigers got those medals on Wednesday night by sticking to the same plan that served them so well heading into the postseason. Hollidaysburg jumped out to an 18-point lead 6 minutes in and rolled over top-seeded Tyrone at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse for its second consecutive District 6 Class AAA championship, 69-49.
"Winning back-to-back districts feels great,'' said senior forward Alex Gildea, whose 22 points fronted Hollidaysburg. "We spent all of our time working so hard on the things we needed to critique. We worked so hard over the last week. I think we deserve this.''
Morgan Griffith, who scored 27 points in a win over the Lady Eagles earlier this season, finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds. Tyrone had no one to match up with the Hollidaysburg 6-footer, who had a double-double by halftime.
Despite being the defending champion, Hollidaysburg came in as the second seed - District 6 seedings are based on a power rating formula calculated from wins, size of beaten opponents and beaten opponents' winning percentage.
"Them being the first seed made us mad. That kind of gave us drive,'' Griffith said. "We had so much more energy in the first quarter. That just got us going. All 16 of us and all four coaches were into it. The energy was amazing.''
Hollidaysburg jumped out to leads of 11-2 and 22-4 before settling for a 26-12 advantage after one quarter. Hollidaysburg scored on its first six possessions, with five different Lady Tigers putting points on the board.
"We all played together as a team,'' Gildea said. "When we are all hitting the boards and getting the ball to everyone, I think that's when we play our best.''
Susie Ellis also reached double digits with 10 points, while Mercer collected eight points and five assists. Rachel McClain had a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter, when Hollidaysburg was 9-for-14 from the field.
The closest Tyrone got after the opening period was 11 points.
"We needed everything to go well. We knew that. They're a good team and have a lot of weapons. Regardless of who you try to shut down, they exploit you in other areas,'' Lady Eagles coach Lucas Rhoades said. "We got off to a slow start. You get down to a team that good, that big, that physical and that fast that early, it's hard to battle back.''
Hollidaysburg raised its record to 15-8, but the Lady Tigers opened the campaign 8-2 before going into a tailspin and losing six of nine. A heartbreaking one-point setback at home on Feb. 10 against a State College team Hollidaysburg had defeated earlier on the road was the last straw for Jubeck.
"After that game, we had a pretty emotional talk in the locker room for about an hour. From then on, I could tell everyone wanted to [repeat as district champions] for Jubeck and for each other,'' Griffith said. "I'm so glad we could win this for our seniors, for Alex and Rachel, and for Jubeck.''
"We were just talking to the kids about coming together, staying together, working hard throughout the game and playing for the seniors,'' Jubeck said of the meeting. "We had our mountains and our valleys and days that it felt like a roller-coaster we were on. We had to get over that hump.
"It means a lot [to win this].''
The Lady Tigers' record was deceptive, compiled against a number of Class AAAA teams. The Lady Tigers will open interdistrict play on March 9 against the winner of the PIAA play-in game between the WPIAL fifth-place team and the Pittsburgh City League runner-up; Hollidaysburg advanced to the second-round of states in 2011.
"Our schedule was hard last year, but this year we played some teams that were really good. It was preparing us for districts,'' Mercer said, wearing a Lady Tiger towel as a cape.
Tyrone, meanwhile, will have to play in a play-in game on Tuesday against the fourth-place team from District 7 in order to reach the main bracket. Olivia Stever's 20 points and eight rebounds paced the Lady Eagles, who also got 10 points apiece from Nicole Gripp and Alayna Hettinger.
"It's tough. District titles are what you want to win. But we'll get back to work on Friday,'' Rhoades said. "We'll probably play a team just as good and just as physical as Hollidaysburg, so we have to be ready.''
It was the Hollidaysburg's fourth district championship, but it will be the Lady Tigers' last in Class AAA for the time being - they'll be moving back to Class AAAA for the next two-year cycle. For Gildea and her teammates, though, district gold in any class feels good.
"It's just as sweet,'' Gildea said.
HOLLIDAYSBURG (69): Mercer 4 0-0 8, R. McClain 2 0-0 6, Ellis 3 3-4 10, Gildea 7 8-10 22, Griffith 10 1-4 21, Storm 0 0-0 0, Muir 1 0-0 2, Tomassetti 0 0-0 0, Uzmack 0 0-0 0, O'Donald 0 0-0 0. Totals - 27 12-18 69.
TYRONE (49): Gripp 3 3-4 10, Swogger 1 4-6 6, Stever 7 5-7 20, Taylor 0 1-2 0, Hettinger 4 0-0 10, Brooks 1 0-0 2, Brokenshire 0 0-0 0, Hammond 0 0-0 0, Rafferty 0 0-0 0. Totals - 16 13-18 49.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Hollidaysburg26 13 15 15 - 69
Tyrone12 13 10 14 - 49
3-point goals: Hollidaysburg 3 (McClain 2, Ellis); Tyrone 4 (Hettinger 2, Gripp, Stever).
Records: Hollidaysburg (15-8); Tyrone (20-4).
Officials: Dan Gales, Jeff Fisher, Tom Fountaine.