WINGATE - The ball was the farthest thing from Altoona Area junior McKenzie Hatch's mind for the Lady Lions' District 6 Class AAAA semifinal girls basketball playoff game with State College.
"My job was to keep Jenna Altomare as contained as I possibly could," Hatch said. "She's a good player."
She did a solid job of it, limiting State's quick, athletic senior guard to three field goals and 12 points. When the opportunity presented itself to do some damage on the other side of the floor, though, Hatch rose to the occasion, too.
Hatch scored 12 and fellow Lady Lion guard Kaycie Reffner netted 14, combining for five 3-pointers between them. Altoona took advantage of the resurgent backcourt play and some yeoman's work courtesy of its backup forwards to offset Kyla Irwin's 28-point effort and cash in a ticket to the 6-AAAA finals with a 59-55 victory at Bald Eagle Area High School on Saturday afternoon.
"Coach [Jill] Helsel always tells us to hit our shots. We've been working on that a lot," said Hatch, who knocked down two treys and scored 10 points in the first half, enabling Altoona to grab a seven-point lead despite standout 6-footers Darby Lee and Kayla Grimme both being saddled with fouls. "It's really important, because our big girls are probably the two best big girls in the area. So, when they get double-teamed and kick it back out, we have to hit them."
They've been doing that with greater and greater proficiency lately. The Lady Lions entered the playoffs coming off wins over Bishop Guilfoyle and Williamsport when they made 11 and nine 3-pointers, respectively. In the last month, Altoona also has made nine or more from long distance against Central Mountain, Mifflin County and in its second regular season meeting with State College.
The Lady Lions made more than six in a game only three times in their first 13 contests.
"We talk about anytime you have an open shot, whether bigs or guards, you've got to knock it down," Helsel said after her team improved to 16-7. "In games like this, to get an open shot is almost unheard of. If they do get one, they have to hit it, and we've really been practicing without open shots."
Altoona only made six 3s against State College this time, but when it knocked them down was crucial. Hatch, who only had 16 3-pointers in the regular season, swished one at the 3:50 mark of the first quarter to give the Lady Lions a lead they never relinquished, 9-6, then made another six minutes later to put Altoona up by six. She finished the half by finding Reffner, who has been on a tear behind the arc, for a crusher with 1.7 seconds to go in the first half.
Lady Lion outside shooting specialist Lauren Donley chose a critical time to make her only trifecta, converting with 4:30 left in the game to stunt a State College run, answer Taylor Allison's 3 and push the Altoona advantage back from three to six points.
"Our first goal was to get the big girls into foul trouble. We just weren't able to make that run when they weren't in the game," said Lady Little Lion coach Bethany Irwin, whose team finished the year 14-9 by falling to Altoona for the third time by eight points or fewer. "Their guards are quick.
"We just fell short."
Lee and Grimme were factors when they were on the floor - Lee had 14 points and 10 rebounds, Grimme nine points, nine rebounds and six blocks - but that wasn't for very long. Both picked up their fourth foul in the third quarter and eventually fouled out.
Rachel Dibert and Shania Feathers, though, managed to hold their own in extended minutes off the bench for Altoona. Dibert scored five points.
"Our big girls have been in [foul] trouble a lot of the season, and our bench has gotten a lot of experience, and it showed tonight. We've been preaching to the girls, 'This is why you play the schedule that you play,'" Helsel said. "Rachel Dibert stepped in, and, to everyone in the crowd, it might have been like, 'Oh, no.' But I was confident putting her in, because she's done it already."
Kyla Irwin, the State College coach's 5-11 daughter, made it interesting with nine field goals and going 9-for-11 at the line.
"She's a very good player. They can lob the ball to her. She looks to score," Helsel said.
Altoona will be looking for its third straight 6-AAAA championship on Wednesday at St. Francis University, as well as the chance to avenge two regular season losses to Hollidaysburg.
"It feels great to get another shot at Hollidaysburg. We're getting ready for it already," Hatch said.
STATE COLLEGE (55): Altomare 3 5-10 12, Stevenson 1 0-0 2, Allison 1 0-0 3, King 0 2-2 2, Irwin 9 9-11 28, Karstetter 0 0-1 0, Mahon 2 0-0 4, F. Treglia 0 2-2 2, Kaluza 0 0-0 0, A. Treglia 1 0-0 2. Totals - 17 18-26 55
ALTOONA (59): Hatch 2 6-10 12, Reffner 3 5-6 14, Donley 2 0-0 5, Lee 5 4-5 14, Grimme 4 1-4 9, Dibert 1 3-4 5, Feathers 0 0-0 0. Totals - 17 19-33 59.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
State College 8 17 9 21-55
Altoona14 18 11 16-59
3-point goals: State College 3 (Altomare, Irwin, Allison); Altoona 3 (Hatch 2, Reffner 3, Donley).
Officials: Dave Pray, Steve Schaaf, Ray Hoppel.
Team records: State College (14-9); Altoona (16-7).