BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – Over 500 wins and and none have been more impressive.
Seventeen District Three Class A championships and none have been more emotional.
Millions of upsets and none have been sweeter.
So exactly how did the Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball team score 84 points and stun the heavily-favored and defending state champion Steel-High, despite 50 points from the Rollers’ star player, Malia Tate-DeFreitas? A great game plan. Flawless execution. A ‘Never Back Down’ attitude. And a little help from the other side.
The Beavers’ 84-78 victory over Steelton-Highspire in Thursday’s District Three Class A championship game at Hershey’s Giant Center was truly one for the ages. Playing its best basketball of the season, Lebanon Catholic opened an 11-point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, then with three regulars lost to fouls hung on for dear life.
The Rollers pulled to within 81-78 with 39 seconds left. But the Beavers held Steel-High at arm’s length by making four of six foul shots with the outcome on the line.
The Class A title was the 17th in the Beavers’ storied history in the District Three tournament, but first since 2009. Now 19-6, Lebanon Catholic will begin play in the PIAA postseason on Saturday March 9th, at a time and site yet to be determined.
Steel-High, the top-seed in the District Three tournament, will open states 23-3 and as the district’s runner.
“It’s like a story book,” said Lebanon Catholic head coach Patti Hower. “I’ve done it so long, and I don’t like to compare victories. We sort of flew under the radar a little this year. But this is important because they (her players) got this reward. This was emotional. I’m just happy for the girls.
“Maybe one year against Reading Central Catholic we were this big of an underdog,” Hower added. “But we didn’t win that year. It was weird going to sit on the other (visitors’) bench. It was weird wearing blue. But we got this (the gold medal) and that’s all that matters.”
On the biggest stage of her life, Beaver senior guard Stevie Fortna turned in the performance of her career. Knocking down trifectas, fearlessly slashing to the hoop and still having time to find teammates, Fortna poured in a career-high 36 points, on five three-pointers, ten total field goals and 11-for-14 shooting from the line, to offset most of Tate-DeFreitas’ half-a-century.
The Beavers’ balance took care of the rest, as Kate Pastal and Abby Shay each connected for 13 points.
Fortna also collected her 1,000th career point, on two free throws with 4:35 left that gave Lebanon Catholic a 71-63 advantage.
“She played pretty well,” said Hower of Fortna. “This is a big game and good players play big in big games. She had the hot hand in the first half and I told her to keep shooting it.
“This (district title) is one of the best ones,” Hower continued. “This is very, very satisfying. We came in as underdogs against the state champs, but we didn’t back down. Our kids executed the game plan. I was very proud of they way we played. They (her players) played hard.”
Six straight Catholic points near the end of the first half gave the Beaver faithful an inkling that an upset might be in the making. At the time, it gave Lebanon Catholic a 37-32 lead.
But the personal fouls began to pile up for the Beavers in the third quarter, even for Fortna who drew her fourth late in the stanza. Yet despite the foul difficulties, Lebanon Catholic opened a 44-37 lead on a three-pointer from Holy Marinkov, as well as a 49-40 advantage on another trey by Marinkov.
“Holly was playing pretty good,” said Hower. “Between Holly, Helene (Reist) and Abby (Schrum), they rotate in. But at that point you’ve got to go with who’s going good.
“I thought we were in better shape than they were,” Hower added, “and that was a factor. With 1:58 left, we said, ‘We’re going spread.’ We were running our motion offense and we were getting lay-ups.”
Back-to-back three-pointers by Fortna, in a span of 43 seconds, turned a three-point Catholic deficit into a 16-13 lead. But the Rollers would score the next nine points to grab a 22-16 advantage early in the second quarter.
Lebanon Catholic answered and went back up 29-28 on a pair of charity tosses from Shay, 3:17 before intermission.
“This has been our goal,” said Hower. “After Tuesday (a semifinal win over Hershey Christian), we said, ‘We’re not going to Giant Center to lose. We’re going to Giant Center to win.’
“We’re normally a man (man-to-man defense) team,” said Hower. “But we played a lot of zone this year. Every game we would go zone.
“They (her players) executed and we had a good offensive game,” Hower added. “It was a good team win. It was an up-and-down game, and we were getting a lot in transition.”
What the Catholic zone served to do was take away scoring opportunities for Tate-DeFreitas’ supporting cast. It also allowed the Beavers an opportunity to rest.
Tate-DeFreitas made 18 field goals – none of which came from beyond the arc – and shot 14-for-19 from the foul line.
“I don’t know if we can play much better,” said Hower. “Not that we were going to give her (Tate-DeFreitas) everything, but we didn’t want the other girls to beat us. That was the game plan.
“She’s an outstanding player,” Hower concluded. “She’s going to get her points. But she got a lot when Stevie couldn’t come out and play her.”