For the first three quarters of Saturday afternoon's AASD Jaffa Shrine Holiday Classic finals, the Altoona girls basketball team trailed just once, when Gateway briefly pulled ahead 16-14 with 5:36 remaining in the second quarter.
The Lady Lions' defense - particularly their full court press - caused the Lady Gators to turn the ball over again and again in the first half, and they were shooting well.
But in the fourth quarter, everything turned around.
Gateway, the Monroeville team facing Altoona in the Jaffa championship for the third straight year, ratcheted up its defensive intensity and harassed the Lady Lions backcourt into foul trouble. Then, led by senior guard Jada Epps, the Lady Gators finished the game with a back-breaking 16-2 run to give them a 56-49 victory and the Jaffa championship. Altoona had won the championship the past two years.
"We kind of got a big contribution from everybody and that made the difference in the fourth quarter because it wasn't one person that had to shoulder the whole burden of the fourth quarter," Gateway coach Cornelious Newbit said.
Epps, named the tournament MVP, scored nine of her game-high 18 points in the fourth and was noticeably more aggressive in the second half.
"We challenged her," Nesbit said. "I think she's one of the best players that we have down in the WPIAL. Sometimes she just needs a kick in the butt."
After leading for so long, the sudden surge from the Lady Gators seemed to knock the Lady Lions back on their heels. Not only were they outscored 18 to 7 in the fourth, but they couldn't break the Gateway press and made a series of unforced errors and turnovers.
"We beat them for three quarters and then our fourth quarter, we score 7, they score 18," Altoona coach Jill Helsel said. "Our point guard [McKenzie Hatch] got in foul trouble, we had to sit her down and they got some turnovers off of that. It was a pretty big swing."
Struggling with a pressing defense was a switch for Altoona, who had been on the other end of the press in the first half, grabbing seven steals in the first and second.
"We've been working on that," Helsel said. "We want to pressure them. I thought we did that well in the first half, but pressuring brings foul trouble. We need to learn to off-set that and get some people ready for when the point guard gets in foul trouble."
But after struggling against Altoona's defense in the first half, Gateway found a way to stay calm in the face of the press in the second.
"We went in at half time and made some adjustments," Nesbit said. "We talked about trusting our eyes. A lot of times, our turnovers were where we saw [a good play], but we didn't trust it, so we did something else and turned the ball over.
"And then we also said to put the ball in Jada's hands and [point guard London Wade's] hands and have them get the ball across half court and get us into our stuff."
The young Lady Lions - who have just three seniors on the roster - dropped to 2-5 with the loss, but Helsel said there were positives to take from the game.
"They're hard on themselves, but it's my job to tell them the positives. I know what we need to work on and we'll get back in the gym and try our best to fix it. We'll find a group - we're still shuffling kids around. I thought some young kids played well tonight. Some kids came in who haven't had a lot of playing time.
"You take the positives and build from there. It's only December."
Game notes: Darby Lee led Altoona with 13 points, while Rachel Dibert chipped in 10 points and 10 rebounds. ... Lee and Gateway's Morgan Hainsey joined Epps on the all-tournament team. ... Altoona made five 3s in the game - three from freshman Amber Newberry and two by guard Brittanee Davis. Gateway didn't attempt a 3-pointer.
Gateway (56): Young 1 0-0 2, Epps 7 4-7 18, Wade 5 5-7 15, Hainsey 5 0-0 10, Copeland 3 0-0 6, Carter 2 0-0 4, Thomas 0 1-2 1. Totals - 23 10-16 56.
Altoona (49): Caracciolo 0 0-0 0, Hatch 1 3-6 5, Davis 5 0-0 12, Dibert 5 0-0 10, Darby Lee 6 1-2 13, Whitfield 0 0-0 0, Muffie 0 0-2 0, Newberry 3 0-0 9, L. Donley 0 0-0 0, S. Donley 0 0-0 0. Totals - 20 4-10 49.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Gateway12 13 13 18 - 56
Altoona14 14 14 7 - 49
3-point goals: Altoona 5 (Newberry 3, Davis 2).
Records: Gateway (4-3); Altoona (2-5).