The only thing standing in the way of a perfect week for the Altoona girls basketball team was a buzzsaw named Villa Maria Academy from Erie.
Altoona opened the week with three straight wins but couldn't recover from a 20-8 second-quarter surge that the Victors turned into a 49-42 win over the Lady Lions Saturday afternoon on senior day at the AAHS Fieldhouse.
Despite ending the week on a sour note, Altoona coach Jill Helsel found a few positives in the setback.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Altoona’s Kaycie Reffner is pressured by Morgan Putnam.
"[Villa Maria] is a top team in [Class] AAA," said Helsel, whose team played four home games in five days, and strung together consecutive wins over Mifflin County, State College and Mercyhurst Prep to start the week. "To come out, keep it close and fight back is a credit to our team."
Villa Maria, which won its eighth game in a row and improved to 17-2, came out playing a tight man-to-man defense that put a severe damper on Altoona's perimeter offense. The Lady Lions only made a pair of 3-pointers and didn't connect on their first trey until late in the fourth quarter when Kaycie Reffer knocked down a triple from the corner with 1:17 left in the game. Lauren Donley hit a 3 with 30.3 seconds left, but it was too little, too late as the Lady Lions fell to 13-7 on the season.
"Coming in, we knew Donley and Reffner could flat-out shoot the 3," Villa Maria coach Doug Chuzie said. "Our game plan was to take that away. Altoona is very well coached and we were happy with them scoring two [points] at a time as opposed to three at a time."
Villa Maria's 5-foot-10 senior forward Karlee McBride, an Indiana University recruit, closed out the first quarter with a free throw to give the Victors a 9-8 advantage. McBride and fellow senior Leah Bennett, the only two seniors on the Villa Maria roster, led a 20-8 second-quarter charge that proved to be the difference in the game.
The Victors went on a 10-0 run to start the quarter, building a 19-8 edge, and carried that momentum into halftime with a 29-16 advantage. Bennett scored all of her nine points in the second, while McBride added seven for Villa Maria, which forced Altoona into 13 first-half turnovers and only committed five as a team.
"When you have two senior leaders like Karlee and Leah, it makes coaching easy," Chuzie said.
Altoona junior Darby Lee, who pulled down eight rebounds, scored seven of her game-high 21 points in the third quarter, but the Lady Lions still trailed by 13 (40-27) heading into the fourth.
"She does it quietly every night," Helsel said of Lee, who averaged 17.5 points per game during Altoona's four-game stretch this week.
Villa Maria extended its lead to 14 points (42-28) early in the fourth on a McBride layup with 7:18 left. Altoona would put up quite a fight the rest of the way. An 11-2 run over the next six minutes sliced the lead to five, 44-39, with just over a minute to play. That's as close as the Lady Lions could get. McBride answered with a pair of free throws and teammate Shanice Morris added a layup to push the lead to nine points (48-39).
"They made a heck of a comeback," Chuzie said. "I think it was a great tune-up for the state playoffs for both teams."
Game Notes: Kayla Grimme added 10 points and nine rebounds for the Lady Lions, who travel to Bishop Guilfoyle on Tuesday Altoona seniors Grimme, Reffner and Shania Feathers were honored before the game McBride finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Morris chipped in 10 points for Villa Maria, which hosts Warren on Tuesday.
VILLA MARIA ACADEMY (49): Harden-Pulliam 1 1-5 3, Morris 4 2-2 10, Mifsud 1 2-2 5, Bennett 2 4-4 9, McBride 5 5-6 18, Maxson 2 0-0 4, Putnam 0 0-0 0, Agnello 0 0-0 0, Young 0 0-0 0. Totals - 15 14-19 49.
ALTOONA (42): Hatch 0 1-3 1, Reffner 2 0-3 5, Lee 7 7-10 21, Grimme 4 2-2 10, Feathers 1 0-0 2, Donley 1 0-0 3, Knab 0 0-0 0, Dibert 0 0-0 0, B. Davis 0 0-0 0. Totals - 15 10-18 42.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Villa Maria9 20 11 9 - 49
Altoona8 8 11 15 - 42
3-point goals: Villa Maria 5 (McBride 3, Bennett, Mifsud); Altoona 2 (Reffner, Donley).
Records: Villa Maria (17-2); Altoona (13-7).
JV: Villa Maria, 44-26. High scorers - Sarah Agnello, VM, 10; Brittanee Davis, A, 8.
Officials: Barry Saylor, Sam Zambanini, Rod Jarvis.