HOLLIDAYSBURG - History suggests a team capturing the District 6 Class AAAA high school girls basketball tournament is likely to win more than one: In 29 years, only three champions have failed to reel off consecutive titles, and every team that produced multiple crowns through 2010 won at least three in a row.
Altoona Area's forward tandem of sophomore Darby Lee and junior Kayla Grimme are going to give the Lady Lions a great opportunity to keep that trend continuing.
With senior sharpshooter Kayla DeCriscio cold at the start and senior forward Lauren Hippo on the bench after a nasty looking ankle injury, Lee made seven of her first eight shots and Grimme came up three blocked shots shy of a triple-double as the "perfectly imperfect'' Lady Lions turned in a nearly perfect middle two quarters in pounding State College, 62-38, on Thursday night at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School for its second straight 6-AAAA title.
Mirror photo by Patrick?Waksmunski
Altoona players (from left) Alexia Servello, Lauren Hippo, Kaycie Reffner and Kayla DeCriscio celebrate their title.
"They have a big role on the team. Any player does. With those post players stepping up, that was such a big part,'' DeCriscio, who warmed up as the game progressed to finish with a game-high 19 points, said of Lee's and Grimme's contributions. "They've really risen to the occasion and played hard, and I'm so proud of them.
"Words can't describe how this feels. To win two years in a row is just awesome. My teammates are wonderful.''
Altoona (19-4) had clipped State College (11-11) in two close games in the regular season, and it looked like the third meeting might go down to the wire again after the third-seeded Lady Little Lions took a one-point lead into the second quarter. Hippo had left the game a little more than three minutes in after coming down badly on her right ankle and needing helped off the court; her return seemed uncertain.
After Alexia Servello made a free throw to knot the score at 11, Lee, the 6-footer in the game for Hippo, rebounded her missed second foul shot and made a great bullet pass across the key to Grimme for a layup and an unconventional three-point play.
Altoona never trailed again.
Lee made four of Altoona's next five baskets - Hippo returned and promptly made a trey - to give the Lady Lions a 24-17 lead. After State College's Taylor Allison made a 3-pointer, DeCriscio made the first of her three 3-pointers, and Altoona blew the game wide open with a 25-4 run that extended into the opening moments of the fourth quarter.
"Our girls fed off their hustle, and they hustled hard,'' said Altoona coach Jill Helsel, a winner of several district titles as a Lady Lion in the 1990s. "They played excellent. I thought they wanted it more.''
Just 5-for-15 from the field in the first quarter, Altoona went 8-for-10 in the second and was 13-for-22 in the second and third combined.
"I think we came out timid after beating them three times last year knowing it would be tough to beat them three times this year. But we just came out and had fun,'' Hippo said. "We call ourselves 'perfectly imperfect.' Coming out and everyone not being too serious is how we play better. It's how we come together as a team better.''
State College, which lost 50-47 and 54-48 in the previous encounters with Altoona, needed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter just to momentarily get the difference under 20.
"I'm not sure [what happened]. Sometimes I looked on [our players'] faces, and I think they lost the process that they could actually win,'' said State College coach Bethany Irwin, whose team was led be Jenna Altomare's 14 points. "Altoona played a hard game. They have the whole package. They've got the inside, they've got the outside, and everything was working for them.''
For Lee, that was almost literally the case. Possessing tantalizing potential that would be good enough to put her in the starting unit of many teams, Lee showed off her athletic ability to go 6-of-7 from the floor in the first half for a team-best 12 points as Altoona took a 31-20 lead into the locker room.
"Starting's great, but coming off the bench is amazing because you know you have to go in there, give it your all and show you belong in there with them,'' Lee said. "I feel like I'm just in the zone.''
Lee wound up with 15 points. The 6-1 Grimme, meanwhile, has really started to put it together - with 12 points, she's now scored in double figures in 10 of her last 13 games. She was even a bigger factor on the boards with 15 rebounds and on defense with seven blocks; she rejected eight shots in a game late last month with Bishop Guilfoyle.
"I feel very comfortable with this team. We've really come together. I think it's our chemistry that has let me come out and play my game,'' Grimme said. "I really like being in their with [Lee]. We have a really good tandem.''
"We call them our twin towers. They are unstoppable,'' Hippo said.
The Lady Lions now will get a seven-day break before they face a tough task in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs; this year's bracket has the District 6 champ meeting the WPIAL runner-up, meaning Altoona will be taking on either Mount Lebanon or Oakland Catholic, two teams that beat it on the road this year. The Lady Lions, though, couldn't be coming off a better springboard performance.
"We'll be ready,'' Helsel said. "We've seen both those teams. I think that helps greatly.''
It was Altoona's 21st title in Class AAAA and the Lady Lions' 23rd overall. Helsel, having won both as a player and a coach, prefers the latter.
"I have to tell you, it's more rewarding as a coach,'' Helsel said. "We have kids that work so hard, and it's great to see them work together and be successful.''
STATE COLLEGE (38): Mahon 2 0-0 4, Baney 0 0-0 0, Altomare 6 2-3 14, Allison 3 0-0 7, King 4 0-0 9, F. Treglia 0 0-0 0, Stevenson 2 0-0 4, Karstetter 0 0-0 0, Kaluza 0 0-0 0. Totals - 17 2-3 38.
ALTOONA (62): Servello 2 2-4 6, Reffner 1 2-2 4, DeCriscio 6 4-6 19, Hippo 2 0-0 6, Grimme 5 2-2 12, Lee 7 1-2 15, Hatch 0 0-0 0, Donley 0 0-0 0, Iuzzolino 0 0-0 0, Palfey 0 0-0 0, Sh. Feathers 0 0-0 0. Totals - 23 11-16 62.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
State College11 9 4 14 - 38
Altoona10 21 16 15 - 62
3-point goals: State College 2 (King, Allison); Altoona 5 (Hippo 2, DeCriscio 3).
Records: State College (11-11); Altoona (19-4).
Officials: Terri Piatek, Sue Kovensky, Vicki Markiewicz.