Veteran Forest Hills High School girls basketball coach Carol Cecere had some words of wisdom for her team after it fell behind early in Wednesday night's Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference Section 1 showdown with host Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic.
"I just kept telling our girls to be battle-ready, and to play 32 minutes,'' she said. "And that's what they did.''
Forest Hills overcame a 20-10 deficit after one quarter, turned the game around in the second quarter and passed a gut check down the stretch to carve out a hard-fought 50-48 victory in a playoff-like atmosphere at the Pleasant Valley gymnasium.
BG (12-3 overall, 4-1 in Section 1) took its last lead of the game, 46-45, on a jumper from the key by standout freshman forward Lili Benzel with 4:07 left.
Forest Hills (11-5, 4-1) went ahead for good, 47-46, when Cecere's daughter, freshman forward Courtney Cecere, was fouled and made two of two free throws with 3:47 remaining.
Another freshman, Olivia Gregorich, came up with a big 3-point play at the 3:08 mark, depositing a driving runner from near the low block and the free throw after she was fouled on the play to give Forest Hills a 50-46 advantage.
BG responded quickly, with a driving lay-up by Benzel - who scored a game-high 22 points - to pull to within 50-48 with less than two minutes left.
After Forest Hills was called for traveling, Benzel tried a shot from the deep left corner that hit off the rim and was rebounded by Forest Hills sophomore Alyssa Peretin with 19 seconds left.
BG eventually fouled Courtney Cecere with 11 seconds left, and she missed the free throw. The Marauders grabbed the rebound, but Gregorich alertly intercepted BG's long outlet pass near midcourt with four seconds left.
"Olivia Gregorich came up with a big steal there,'' Carol Cecere said. "She nailed that deep pass.''
Gregorich was fouled on the play, and missed her free throw, but the ball came down too deep in BG's backcourt for the Lady Marauders to have a decent chance at a tying or winning shot as time expired.
"BG has a great team,'' Carol Cecere said. "It's always a great battle when we come in here. [BG coach] Mark [Moschella] has his team ready all the time. It's a great game every time we play them.''
With Benzel scoring 10 points and her freshman classmate, guard Macy Adams, chipping in eight of her 18 for the game, BG put together a 17-4 run to close the first quarter with the 20-10 lead.
Forest Hills made some adjustments in the second quarter, and the changes paid off, with the Lady Rangers carrying the second period, 17-6, to take a 27-26 halftime lead.
"We actually went with more guards on the floor to counteract [BG's] man-to-man defense,'' Carol Cecere said. "We went with an extra guard to help us take care of the ball a little bit better.''
Forest Hills scored 12 of the last 14 points in the second quarter to wipe out a 24-15 BG lead. Senior Caitlyn Gallaher hit a pair of free throws to pull Forest Hills to within 26-23. Gallaher, who had 10 points in the game, followed with a steal and length-of-the-court layup, before adding another lay-in after a steal by Peretin, to give Forest Hills the 27-26 edge at the break.
"Forest Hills really played a great game tonight, and we just made too many mistakes,'' Moschella said. "In the first quarter, we came out real strong, but we went flat in the second quarter. And I think that was the difference in the entire game.''
After a hotly-contested third quarter left the teams tied, 39-39 entering the fourth, Forest Hills - which got 15 points from sophomore forward Jill Scott and 10 from Courtney Cecere - got the better of the frenzied fourth period.
"Forest Hills did a nice job of executing their offense,'' Moschella said. "We just needed to make a few more shots tonight.''
Wednesday's game figures to be a boon to both teams as the District 6 playoffs approach. BG will compete in District 6-A, while Forest Hills will be part of the District 6-AAA tournament.
"I'm really proud of my team tonight,'' Carol Cecere said. "I told my team that they have to work really hard and get better with every minute tonight, and that's what they did.''
Game notes: Peretin grabbed five rebounds for Forest Hills ... Among the faces in the crowd was former Altoona Area High School and Villanova University standout Doug West, who went on to an NBA career. Both West and former Altoona Area High School boys and girls basketball coach Art Taneyhill - who was also in attendance Wednesday - are members of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame ... BG won the junior varsity game, 38-21, behind 14 points from Kierra Miller ... BG hosts Central Cambria Friday night in another Laurel Highlands Conference Section I game.
FOREST HILLS (50): Gallaher 2 6-6 10, Meier 0 0-0 0, Richards 1 0-0 2, Scott 7 1-2 15, Peretin 3 0-0 6, Gregorich 2 3-4 7, Smith 0 0-0 0, Cecere 2 6-7 10. Totals - 17 16-19 50.
BISHOP GUILFOYLE (48): Benzel 8 4-6 22, Adams 5 6-8 18, Taddei 0 2-2 2, Dombrowski 2 0-0 4, Irvin 0 0-0 0, McGhee 1 0-0 2, Scipioni 0 0-0 0. Totals - 16 12-16 48.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Forest Hills10 17 12 11 - 50
Bishop Guilfoyle20 6 13 9 - 48
3-point goals: Bishop Guilfoyle 4 (Benzel 2, Adams 2).
Records: Forest Hills (11-5 overall, 4-1 in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference Section I); Bishop Guilfoyle (12-3 overall, 4-1 in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference Section I).
JV: Bishop Guilfoyle, 38-21. High scorers-Smith, FH, 6; Miller, BG, 14.