CLARION, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Claire Clouse swiped away the tears that were running down her ruddy cheeks and let out a joyous bellow.
Madison Foringer wrapped her arms around her in a celebratory embrace as Ryleigh Smathers and Katie Davis swarmed them on the court just as the sound of the final buzzer faded away at Tippin Gymnasium.
It was a fitting outburst of emotion for the four seniors on the Redbank Valley girls basketball team. It was fueled by the thrill of victory, sure, but also out of relief.
They didn’t want their basketball season to end.
It didn’t. Two big runs saw to that, including a 14-0 stretch over the final four minutes that gave the Bulldogs a 52-40 win over Punxsutawney and the District 9 Class 3A title at Clarion University Saturday afternoon.
“This feels amazing,” Clouse said, a smile bright enough to light up the corridor outside the locker room. “Just amazing. Amazing. I knew this could be my last game, and I just gave it my all. I gave everything I had.”
The topic of conversation all week leading up to the championship game was clear: the seniors wanted more basketball. It was a win-or-go-home game for both Redbank and Punxsutawney.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
And a freshman saw to it that the Bulldog seniors would play on.
Mylee Harmon scored 23 points and hit 6-of-6 free throws in the waning moments to help Redbank snare the title.
“Oh my gosh, she’s insane,” Clouse said of Harmon. “I love her to death. I just really don’t have anything to say — she’s just awesome, and I love her.”
She’s not the only one.
Smathers gave Harmon a big bear hug outside the locker room and said, ‘Marvelous Mylee,” one of the many nicknames Harmon has picked up during her huge debut season.
The loudest cheers were for Harmon, who has put her indelible imprint on the Bulldogs.
She was afflicted by a few uncharacteristic misfires early. It didn’t faze Harmon, who just turned 15 on Feb. 23.
She showcased her speed, scoring on several fast breaks. She also stepped into passing lanes and was a general thorn in Punxustawney’s side.
Most of all, she displayed poise that belied her youth.
“I wanted to do this for my team and the seniors,” Harmon said. “This could have been their last game, and I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted their last year to have this memory.”
It was looking like a nightmare for Punxsutawney, which fell behind 6-0 out of the gate and then watched Redbank go on a 13-0 run to lead 19-11 just two minutes into the second quarter.
The Bulldogs were up by as many as 11 late in the first half, but went into the locker room clinging to a five-point advantage.
Still, Redbank felt good. Punxutawney had given up 25 or fewer points in its last six wins; The Bulldogs had 27 at the half.
“We allowed them to get their hands on too many passes,” said Punxsutawney coach Mike Carlson. “They did a good job attacking.”
Redbank Valley led by as many as 12 in the third quarter before the Chucks made their final gasp.
Punxsutawney outscored the Bulldogs 15-1 to take a one-point lead on a layup by Kiersten Riley with a little more than four minutes remaining. The Chucks were up 40-38 when the Bulldogs began their game-closing 14-0 run to secure the district title.
“We knew we could fight back — this wasn’t going to be easy, one way or the other,” Carlson said. “We knew we were going to come back and make it a game after their first run, but they are just too good to overcome two of them.”
Foringer added 12 for Redbank Valley and was particularly effective under the basket, using her height advantage. Caylen Rearick, Clouse and Harmon were able to find her under the hoop for key baskets.
Rearick scored six, but she was more effective as a passer and on defense. Known for her 3-point-shooting prowess, the junior didn’t attempt one against Punxsy.
Clouse also hit two key baskets and was pivotal on the boards.
“She and Mylee really played well,” said Redbank Valley coach Chris Edmonds. “They played really well up top (of the 2-3 zone) and they read each other. (Clouse) got in a lot of passing lanes, which enabled Mylee to get some steals, and also Brooklyn (Edmonds) with her back-side rebounds enabled us to get out and go.”
Redbank Valley needed all hands with junior and leading scorer Alivia Huffman rooted on the bench in foul trouble for most of the game.
Huffman picked up three fouls early in the first half and then was whistled for her fourth just eight seconds into the third.
She returned, though, with the game tied at 40-40 in the fourth and promptly scored two key baskets to help Redbank get rolling toward the crown.
“We as coaches were talking about when to put her in,” Edmonds said. “I just made the call and then we fed her.
“We’ve talked all year about playing a bunch of kids,” Edmonds added. “I think that paid off tonight. When Alivia went out and Mylee picked up three (fouls) that limited her ability to be aggressive, I thought that the girls really stepped up and picked up the slack.”
And now Redbank Valley is district champs.
“We’ve had these seniors since they were in the third grade,” Edmonds said. “We used to play Punxsy at the Punxsy community center all the time, so it meant a lot to us.”
Carlson and his Chucks have to face the unfortunate reality that only one team from Class 3A in the district can move on to the state playoffs.
Redbank Valley will play the fifth-place team out of the WPIAL, Laurel, at home Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the state playoffs.
Meanwhile, Punxsy will have to come to grips with the closure of its season.
“I wish both of us could go,” Carlson said. “The emptiest day of the year is tomorrow.”