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Juniata Valley falls to McCort

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Anyone familiar with the landscape of Class 2A girls basketball in the state of Pennsylvania knows that Juniata Valley had a chance to win a PIAA championship this season.

The Lady Hornets made it all the way to the 1A finals when this year’s seniors were freshmen and sophomores and have beaten Bellwood-Antis, the defending back-to-back 2A state champions during the regular season in each of the past three years.

But the one coach who knew it could also all come to an end Wednesday night in the District 6 2A quarterfinals happened to be coaching across the court from Juniata Valley.

Bishop McCort coach John Hahn lost a two-point game to Bellwood-Antis in overtime last year in the quarterfinals, ending a season that he thought could have ended with a state championship. This year, McCort found itself as the sixth seed after dealing with an injury to Division I Mount St. Mary’s commit Bella Hunt that kept her out for most of the season.

With Hunt back on the floor Wednesday and Juniata Valley star senior Halee Smith not quite recovered from a broken hand suffered against Saltsburg on Jan. 31 and unavailable to play, McCort edged the third-seeded Lady Hornets, 62-52, and ended the decorated high school careers of Smith and fellow senior star Hayden Taylor.

“It stinks,” Hahn said. “Last year, me and (Bellwood-Antis coach Jim) Swaney talked and said our game should have been the D6 final. Maybe this could have been the D6 final. They are a great team.

“I felt so bad for Halee, because I’ve had Bella out all year with a leg injury. I know that girl wanted to be out there, and she’s a big part of her team, but they battled. They are well coached, and it’s just a shame that we got matched up in a one-and-done. You have to win that first game, and my heart goes out to them, but it was our turn to move on this year.”

Juniata Valley trailed by just one after Olivia Smith made a jumper with less than four minutes to play, but Bishop McCort scored the next four points and managed to keep the game at least a two-possession contest for the final three minutes by making its free throws. The Lady Crushers finished 20-of-25 from the line and were led by Lexi Martin’s 24 points.

Lady Hornets coach Rachelle Hopsicker was overcome with emotion following the game.

“We were at the highest of highs after beating Bellwood (on Jan. 30),” Hopsicker said. “The next day we were at the lowest of lows (when Smith broke her hand). We have a great supporting cast, but McCort is hot right now. We just needed more time to get better, and we didn’t have time. We drew a tough one. We knew when we got McCort that it was going to be tough.”

Hunt was a force in the paint and scored 16 points for Bishop McCort playing with a large knee brace.

“Her parents and I had a real long talk, and I didn’t want her to come back,” Hahn said. “She just worked so hard. She was in the gym with us every day and kept telling me she was getting back. All of a sudden, she brought the doctor’s papers in and threw them down and said, ‘you have to play me.’

“We gave her a few minutes and worked her way back, and I’ve got to play her. She’s an extension of me on the court. I love her to death.”

Hopsicker can relate to Hahn’s love for his players.

“They changed the culture of basketball in Juniata Valley again,” Hopsicker said. “It has been like that old feel we had years and years ago (when the boys team won a state title in the late 90s). Our community has been amazing supporting the girls, and these kids have been role models for players in years to come. The second graders are looking up to these kids, and I can’t say enough about them. They are amazing on the court and off the court. This group was special, and it was just unfortunate that Halee got hurt.”

Smith took part in pregame warmups and did so again after the half. She dressed for the game and wore a soft cast on her left hand, but Hopsicker said her long-term future was always the priority.

“She wanted to go in,” Hopsicker said. “She’s got such a bright future, and we couldn’t jeopardize that. Sometimes you have to make that tough decision.”

Smith will attend Division I Quinnipiac next season to continue her basketball career.

“We had so much energy and enthusiasm coming out of that Bellwood game,” Smith said. “It went so quiet when I hurt my hand. I didn’t know it was broken, but after getting the X-rays back, that kind of sucked our energy a little bit. But God had a plan for me. He could have been saving me from something more severe like an ACL injury or something even worse than that. You have to look at the brighter side.

“We will never be forgotten. We brought so much to this program, not just my class, but the class before us and the classes coming up. We won’t be forgotten. I know that for a fact.”

Fellow seniors Hayden Taylor, Kat Hopsicker (who scored nine points off the bench) and Lexie Reed took the loss hard and had been hoping to win for Smith in the event she was healthy enough to play if the Lady Hornets qualified for states.

“We accomplished so much,” Taylor said. “Our freshman and sophomore year, going to the state championship and being in the district championship three years and winning one, we have accomplished so much. I know everyone is proud of us. Everyone is going to remember us, and I know I’ll remember these four years the rest of my life.”

Rather than dwell on Wednesday’s loss, Hopsicker concentrated on what the group has achieved over the past four years.

“The trips to Hershey,” Hopsicker said. “The kids went to soup kitchens together, Hartslog Day together and have been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows many times. We have had a lot of life experiences together, and we kept telling them God only gives you what you can handle. A lot of times you say why? Why does this happen? And it’s because it’s just making us stronger. They are going to be amazing women, and I look forward to seeing what they can do.”

BISHOP McCORT (62): Shriver 3 1-2 9, M. Martin 2 6-6 11, L. Martin 8 7-9 24, Selfridge 0 0-0 0, Hunt 4 6-8 16, Janidlo 0 0-0 0, B. Bair 1 0-0 2, Diamond 0 0-0 0. Totals — 18 20-25 62.

JUNIATA VALLEY (52): O. Smith 3 1-2 7, A. Taylor 2 2-2 7, H. Taylor 3 3-4 10, Musser 5 2-2 12, Reed 2 0-0 5, Hopsicker 3 2-2 9, Hartman 1 0-0 2. Totals — 19 10-12 52.

SCORE BY QUARTERS

Bishop McCort 11 16 10 25 — 62

Juniata Valley 9 14 13 16 — 52

3-point goals: Bishop McCort 6 (Shriver 2, Hunt 2, M. Martin, L. Martin); Juniata Valley 4 (A. Taylor, H. Taylor, Reed, Hopsicker).

Records: Bishop McCort (14-9); Juniata Valley (18-4).

Officials: Tom Fountaine, Dave Heim, Dan Soloman.

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