Bellwood glad to get another shot at McCort

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Bellwood-Antis’ Karson Swogger and Bishop McCort’s Haley Thomas will be competing against each other tonight, but they’ll be on the same team next year at Saint Francis University.

Karson Swogger’s never needed much to stoke her fire when it comes to basketball, but when she saw that Bishop McCort had beaten Bishop Guilfoyle on Saturday afternoon to advance to the PIAA Class 2A western final, it just added to her motivation for her game with Our Lady of Sacred Heart that night.

“I was actually very happy that McCort won,” Swogger said.

It might seem a little unusual, considering Guilfoyle is considered one of Bellwood-Antis’ chief rivals.

Then again, how many times does life give you a second chance?

That’s exactly what Swogger and the Lady Blue Devils will have tonight when they meet up with McCort at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse at 6 p.m. with a spot in the PIAA championship game hanging in the balance. The Lady Devils will be trying to avenge two of their four losses from this season, too, including a thrilling and somewhat controversial two-point setback to the Lady Crushers in the District 6 title game on March 3.

“It’s super-exciting,” B-A senior forward Sophie Damiano said of getting another shot at McCort. “The way the district final ended obviously wasn’t what we wanted, so now we have a chance to come back to show them how we can play to our full potential.”

To reset the situation, Bellwood was trying to exact payback for an early-season loss to McCort at Saint Francis University’s DeGol Arena when the teams matched up again with the D6-2A title at stake. The Lady Devils and Lady Crushers — as they have been in their last several meetings — proved to be almost evenly matched.

With the score knotted at 58 in the closing minute, Swogger put up a shot in close on the baseline that was blocked by McCort senior sensation Haley Thomas in the midst of apparent contact. Thomas then raced the other way and had the ball stripped as she attacked the basket.

It looked like one official was going to call the ball out of bounds to McCort with 3.6 seconds left, but another signaled a foul, and Thomas connected on both foul shots. Swogger still managed to get a good look just beyond the 3-point arc, but her shot hit the front of the rim.

The reaction was a mixture. Some players cried. Some were in disbelief. Some were frustrated. B-A coach Jim Swaney voiced displeasure at the final sequence when speaking with the media, but what was done was done.

“Everything but happy,” Swogger said when asked to try to explain the feelings she felt at the end of the game and in the hours immediately after.

Now the Lady Devils have had some time to consider all that occurred.

“The whole call thing was out of our control, so it wasn’t like we could have helped anything,” forward Makayla Carles said. “But, I know losing that game didn’t feel great. I’m a senior. I wanted to have that medal around my neck. But we’re still in the running for a bigger one.”

That being a PIAA medal.

It looks very much like the Lady Devils have been on a mission since McCort crushed their district title dreams. They’ve won their first three state playoff games by 46, 14 and 28 points — the closest game being against a very big Chartiers-Houston squad that won the WPIAL this winter and has a player being recruited by Division I colleges.

Losing to McCort a few weeks ago might have lit a fuse in the Lady Devils.

“We definitely come into every game thinking it could be our last one. It (hurts) losing. We know the feeling now,” Damiano said.

Carles said she was angry after losing to McCort earlier this month because she felt she could have done more.

“But it didn’t last very long. I can’t let that affect me. We can’t let that affect us,” Carles said.

That’s especially so in this game, because the margin for error is so razor-thin. Bellwood and McCort have played four times in the last four years, and the scoring differential has been 23 points with one game going overtime. McCort has prevailed in the last three.

Freshman Alli Campbell and Swogger scored 28 and 19, respectively, in the last encounter. The obvious question is where can B-A make up the couple of points it needs to overtake the Lady Crushers.

“We’ve got to rebound the ball better, and we’ve got to stop the ball in transition better,” Swaney said.

Of course, any discussion of McCort begins with Thomas, the 5-foot-11 guard who is that program’s all-time leading scorer. Ironically, she and Swogger, both all-state performers, will be teammates at Saint Francis in the fall.

“Me and Haley are pretty good friends, so it’s kind of hard,” Swogger said before breaking into a laugh. “Once we get on the court (as opponents), we aren’t friends anymore.”

Swaney noted, though, that the challenge with McCort is that Thomas’ supporting cast is pretty balanced, often killing opposing teams through what amounts to a thousand accumulated cuts.

The important thing for the Lady Devils, though, is they have a chance to answer that challenge. And maybe get the win when it matters most.

“Watching them get those medals was hard,” Swogger said. “It makes us even more willing to go out and get this win.”

“We know them, and we know how they play, and we know what we need to do,” Carles said. “I’d rather play them than anybody else, because it gets me more pumped up.

“Now it’s just time for redemption.”