HOLLIDAYSBURG - Part of an Oakland Catholic High School girls basketball team that feeds off its defense, Jess Mrdjenovich noticed a tendency on an Altoona inbounds play and picked just the right time to exploit it, stealing the ball with her team ahead by one and only 21 seconds left in overtime.
It was a theme for the night.
Altoona got off to a blazing start. However, the District 6 champion Lady Lions eventually succumbed to the District 7 runner-up's wave after wave of players and in-your-face defense, falling, 40-35, in overtime in the first round of the PIAA Class AAAA tournament on Friday night at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Lauren Hippo tries to fight back the tears walking off the court with her teammates after Altoona’s loss.
"I'm exhausted,'' said Altoona senior wing Kayla DeCriscio, who scored a team-best 14 points and gave the Lady Lions a 35-34 lead with 2:54 left in overtime on her fourth 3-pointer of the game. "We all played our hearts out. I couldn't have asked for anything more from any of my teammates.''
The Lady Lions, who also got 13 points from senior forward Lauren Hippo, exploded out to a 12-point lead in the first six minutes, hitting 7-of-11 shots from the floor in the first quarter while their zone defenses and 6-foot-1 Kayla Grimme's shot-blocking presence in the middle deterred Oakland Catholic from driving to the hoop.
While its defense stayed strong, Altoona's hot shooting hand abandoned it after a Hippo baseline jumper to start off the second quarter - the Lady Lions went 6-for-28 the rest of the way. The Lady Lions also were victimized by 23 turnovers, the last coming on Mrdjenovich's steal, and the Lady Eagles came up with 16 offensive rebounds and took 20 more foul shots.
The Lady Lions finished 19-5.
"They had a great season,'' Altoona coach Jill Helsel said. "They left everything they had on the floor. They invested so much, this loss hurts.
"Sometimes you do everything you're supposed to do, but you come up short.''
It was the second straight year Oakland Catholic eliminated Altoona in the first round and the third consecutive win for the Lady Eagles (25-2) over the Lady Lions, although they shot 3-for-20 in the first half and made only 10 field goals in the game. Oakland Catholic will play Upper St. Clair in the next round.
"We couldn't throw the ball into the ocean. You just have to keep them focused. You have to keep them believing that they can win based on their defense. Let their defense create their offense even when the shots don't fall,'' Oakland Catholic coach Shannon Boyle said.
The Lady Eagles forced 20 turnovers in the last three quarters and overtime. Things began to swing in the second quarter when Altoona had nine turnovers, but Oakland Catholic only was able to narrow the gap to seven points by halftime. Lady Eagles guard Bobbi Baker, though, sandwiched two 3-pointers around a transition layup off a steal to wipe out Altoona's halftime advantage 2:33 into the third quarter. Baker was the only Lady Eagle in double digits with 14 points.
"I was extremely frustrated with myself at halftime. They weren't giving us anything at all,'' Baker said. "I just sat down in the locker room and realized I'd have to find a way to score.''
Hippo scored all seven of Altoona third-quarter points to keep the game knotted at 28 entering the final period of regulation. There, both teams scored four apiece, and, when Madison Caufield's two treys at the end of regulation came up empty, it was 32-32.
Mrdjenovich drove for a layup to open the overtime scoring, but DeCriscio answered with her 3-pointer to put Altoona ahead for the first time since the last two minutes of the third quarter.
"I was thinking 'maybe this will pick us up,''' DeCriscio said. "We came off that with heat.''
Unfortunately for the Lady Lions, it wasn't to be. Altoona had a chance to add to its lead but missed three shots on one possession with a little more than a minute to go. At the other end, Baker was fouled and made two foul shots with 27.3 seconds left.
After Helsel called time out, Mrdjenovich came up with the play of the game, poking the inbound pass intended for Lady Lion point guard Alexia Servello near halfcourt and running it down.
"When they set screens, we always switch,'' Mrdjenovich said. "[Servello] was rolling every time and opening up. I just watched the eyes of the girl taking the ball out and stuck my hand out.''
Altoona fouled Mara Fitzgerald, who made both of her free throws. Oakland Catholic's Audra Phipps tacked on two more foul shots with .3 seconds left to set the final.
It was a much more competitive game than when the teams first met this season on Jan. 21 in Pittsburgh. In that game, Altoona trailed by 20 at halftime and had just 18 points through three quarters in a 50-33 loss.
This time, the Lady Lions led 17-6 after a quarter.
"In that [first] game, we didn't play our best, and we knew it,'' DeCriscio said. "We have gained so much confidence throughout the season, and we come into each game thinking, 'we have this game.'
"We just came up short.''
OAKLAND CATHOLIC (40): Mrdjenovich 2 4-8 9, Baker 4 4-6 14, Vigliotti 1 0-0 3, Berenati 0 0-0 0, Taglianetti 0 2-2 2, Phibbs 2 3-4 7, Fitzgerald 0 2-2 2, Uwazi 0 0-0 0, Johnson 0 0-0 0, Caufield 1 0-0 3. Totals - 10 15-22 40.
ALTOONA (35): Servello 1 0-0 2, Reffner 0 0-0 0, DeCriscio 5 0-0 14, Hippo 5 2-2 13, Grimme 3 0-0 6, Lee 0 0-0 0, Hatch 0 0-0 0. Totals - 14 2-2 35.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Oakland Catholic 6 8 14 4 8 - 40
Altoona17 4 7 4 3 - 35
3-point goals: Oakland Catholic 5 (Mrdjenovich, Caufield, Baker 2, Vigliotti); Altoona 4 (DeCriscio 4, Hippo).
Records: Oakland Catholic (25-2); Altoona (19-5).
Officials: Tona Williams, Steve Schaaf, Justin Fraker.