HOLLIDAYSBURG - The Portage girls basketball team made a little history Monday night.
The Lady Mustangs coupled a strong start with a decisive fourth quarter for the school's first-ever trip - in boys or girls basketball - to the district finals with a 54-41 win over Juniata Valley in the District 6 Class A semifinals at the Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School.
"It's the first time in school history, boys or girls, to make a district championship game," Portage coach Lance Hudak said. "It means that hard work pays off and as a program we are going in the right direction. We have a huge challenge ahead of us on Friday no matter who we're playing."
Portage (22-2) will play perennial power Bishop Guilfoyle in Friday's district championship game at St. Francis University. The Lady Hornets, who fell to 17-8, will take on Penns Manor in Thursday's consolation game at a site and time to be announced. Both teams advance to the PIAA state playoffs.
Junior Emily Chobany got things going early with consecutive 3-pointers to give Portage a quick 10-4 lead. Then freshman Lexi Wozniak came off the bench and added a pair of treys, the second one giving the Lady Mustangs a 21-14 advantage with 31 seconds left in the quarter.
Juniata Valley point guard Kerigan Ammerman answered. She got fouled on a driving layup, made the basket and followed up with the free throw to close the quarter, cutting the lead to 21-17.
The Lady Hornets would tie the game, 21-21, in the second quarter on an Ammerman free throw at 6:06. Another Wozniak 3-pointer followed by a layup from Juniata Valley's Haley Myers sliced the lead to one, 24-23. The Lady Mustangs, behind seven points from Olivia McCabe, scored 10 unanswered points and built a 34-23 edge late in the second quarter.
"Liv has done it her whole career," Hudak said of the 6-foot-1 junior forward, who scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. "She's very athletic, plays both ends offensively and defensively, and she's disruptive on both ends. She's always a factor on the boards both offensively and defensively."
Juniata Valley, however, made some noise after halftime, scoring the first six points of the third quarter and trailed just 34-32 midway through the frame. Myers, who scored eight of the Lady Hornets' 12 third-quarter points, nailed a jumper with 17 seconds remaining to keep it close (40-38) going into the fourth.
"We had a chance and missed a couple of things; we'll learn from it," Juniata Valley coach Rachelle Hopsicker said. "We were active on defense, but just couldn't capitalize on some of the things we were doing."
Portage took control of the game early in the final quarter. The Lady Mustangs rattled off 10 straight points - powered by four apiece from Olivia McCabe and Chobany - and took a 50-38 lead with 4:25 left in the game. Portage outscored Juniata Valley 14-3 in the fourth quarter.
"In the fourth quarter we started to be more efficient with the ball," Hudak said. "We played smart offensively and we made shots.
"I give all the credit in the world to [Juniata Valley]," Hudak added. "They just never quit fighting."
Abbie Zinobile, who scored nine first-half points, led Juniata Valley with 14, while Myers chipped in 10.
"We thought we'd match up well and it was going to be a battle, we just ran out of gas," Hopsicker said. "We'll work hard, learn from this and be ready for the next one. Games like this just make us better."
Game Notes: Chobany added 12 points for Portage, while Wozniak finished with nine Senior Emily McCabe pulled down 10 rebounds for the Lady Mustangs Portage was a near-perfect 10 of 11 from the foul line; Juniata Valley hit just 8 of 18 free throws.
JUNIATA VALLEY (41): Leri 2 1-2 5, Myers 5 0-0 10, LeCrone 1 0-0 2, Zinobile 6 2-3 14, Ammerman 1 5-11 7, Keller 1 0-0 3, Smith 0 0-2 0, Johnson 0 0-0 0. Totals - 16 8-18 41.
PORTAGE (54): O. McCabe 8 5-5 21, Chobany 5 0-0 12, Ramus 0 0-0 0, E. McCabe 2 2-2 7, Zatek 0 1-2 1, Nolan 1 2-2 4, Wozniak 3 0-0 9, Jubina 0 0-0 0, Baker 0 0-0 0. Totals - 19 10-11 54.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Juniata Valley 17 9 12 3 - 41
Portage 21 13 6 14 - 54
3-point goals: Juniata Valley 1 (Keller); Portage 6 (Wozniak 3, Chobany 2, E. McCabe).
Records: Juniata Valley (17-8); Portage (22-2).
Officials: Terri Piatak, Sue Kovensky, Theresa Laratonda.