CLARION — Going into the season, it wasn’t all that obvious that the Punxsutawney Lady Chucks were going to be the favorites to win their second straight District 9 Class AAA Championship.
With no starters back and just two players — seniors Hope Bridge and Emma White — who saw any significant varsity time last year, the Lady Chucks had to prove themselves as a favorite.
“I spun it that way, not to put pressure on them,” said first-year head coach Mike Carlson. “I said let’s prove people wrong to put that chip on their shoulder. But once we started rolling in the league and getting those wins, it was a matter of being the favorite and everyone is throwing everything at us. That was good to get that out of the way during the season and adjust from there.”
And they did, running the table in the District 9 League. But in Friday night’s final in their third meeting with Bradford, the 20-4 Lady Chucks had to grind out a 36-28 win at Clarion University’s Tippin Gymnasium.
Trailing 11-8 at halftime after making just 3 of 19 shots from the floor — Bradford was only 4-for-19 — the Lady Chucks solved Bradford’s zone defense somewhat and got things going after the break and outscored Bradford, 28-17, the rest of the way.
“We had them for 16 percent in the first half. If you watched our first game of the season, we came out and that was our shooting in the first half of the first game,” Carlson said. “We told the girls we’ve done it and we’ve come back from it. They’re a talented team and it was a matter of settling down, finding those good shots and taking advantage of our bigs and just executing better.”
Leah Miller, a 6-foot sophomore, was the lone Lady Chuck in double figures, finishing with 15 points and a whopping 21 rebounds, leading Punxsutawney to a dominating 45-22 edge over the Lady Owls. The 6-1 Bridge had nine points and eight rebounds.
“Leah is just so athletic,” Carlson said. “If it’s in the air, Leah is going to get it. She can out-jump people. In a lot of games, with Hope on one side and Leah on the other, if we can’t get it inside, shoot the ball and we’re going to rebound it most likely with them in there. It’s great to know we have that advantage.”
Bri Wells, the Lady Owls’ top scorer, led Bradford (11-13) with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting. She scored 11 of those points in the fourth quarter, taking just four shots from the field in the first three quarters.
It wasn’t pretty early on for either side. It was 6-6 after the first quarter and the Lady Owls owned a 5-2 advantage to take their 11-8 first-half lead. Five of the seven points scored in the second quarter came in the final 1:29 of the half.
Credit Bradford for keeping Punxsutawney off-balance with its zone.
“Bradford did the same thing last week. They were down 17 in the first half and lost to us by six,” Carlson said. “They played man in the first half and zone in the second half. I thought Clearfield was a great tuneup for it this time because we saw a zone and executed that night.
“But I was wrong. It was just a reminder that going to gaps instead of going where they could trap us … We had to hit that skip pass more … It was a matter of executing better.”
Punxsutawney outscored Bradford 10-2 in the third quarter, its 8-0 run capped by Morgan VanLeer’s 3-pointer at the 2:46 mark to give the Lady Chucks the lead for good at 16-11.
In the fourth quarter after two Morgan Rogganbaum free throws got Bradford to within 22-19 with 4:54 remaining, the Lady Chucks responded with a 12-2 run to extend to their largest lead and put the game away at 34-21 with 2:10 left.
NOTES: The Lady Chucks are now off until the first round of the PIAA state playoffs March 5 at a District 9 site and time to be announced against the WPIAL (District 7) third seed. The WPIAL quarterfinals were scheduled for Saturday and the third seed will is determined by the semifinal loser to the champion. The semifinals are set for Feb. 24. Go to wpial.org for the brackets. … Both teams obviously didn’t finish with great nights shooting. Punxsutawney was 11-for-42 (26.2 percent) and Bradford finished 10-for-39 (25.6 percent). … Punxsutawney won its 12th district title and improved to 11-13 in championship games. Bradford is now 6-4 against the Lady Chucks in title games and 16-11 overall. … The Lady Chucks upped their winning streak to 11 games overall, 21 straight against D9 opponents and six straight wins against Bradford.
PUNXSUTAWNEY 36, BRADFORD 28
Score By Quarters
Bradford 6 5 2 15 – 28
Punxsutawney 6 2 10 18 – 36
Bradford – 28
Lee Woodmansee 0-1 0-0 0, Abby Burgess 0-0 0-0 0, Bri Wells 6-8 4-5 16, Kamryn Piscitelli 0-7 0-0 0, Brinya Moffett 1-8 1-1 3, Morgan Roggenbaum 2-9 2-3 7, Raya Hennigan 1-4 0-0 2, Rachel Borland 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor Smith 0-2 0-0 0, BrandiLyn Mealy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 10-39 7-9 28.
Punxsutawney – 36
Hope Bridge 2-8 5-7, Emma White 0-3 0-0 0, Alli Lunger 1-7 2-2 4, Ivy Ferko 0-2 2-2 2, Leah Miller 6-11 3-6 15, Kate Horner 1-3 0-0 2, Kylee Lingenfelter 0-2 1-2 1, Morgan VanLeer 1-6 0-1 3. Totals: 11-42 13-20 36.
3-pointers: Bradford 1-16 (Roggenbaum 1-4, Woodmansee 0-1, Piscitelli 0-7, Moffett 0-2, Hennigan 0-2), Punxsutawney 1-12 (White 0-3, Lunger 0-2, Ferko 0-1, Horner 0-2, VanLeer 1-4). Rebounds: Punxsutawney 45 (Miller 21, Bridge 8), Bradford 22 (Horner 6). Turnovers: Punxsutawney 16, Bradford 11.