BY JEFF FALK
FREDERICKSBURG – The Northern Lebanon girls’ basketball team was really gunning for the Showcase Showdown. Instead, the Vikings were forced to settle for what was behind Door Number Two.
Just the fact that the Vikings were competing in this bizzare basketball game show at all makes them the most intriguing local story of the scholastic winter sports season.
On Wednesday night, Northern Lebanon downed Elco 48-37 in a regular-season finale oozing with playoff implications and gushing with title talk. Although the Vikings took care of their own business, they were denied a shot at a Lancaster-Lebanon Section Three championship when Manheim Central defeated Lampeter-Strasburg 40-38.
An L-S upset would’ve created a three-way tie for the section crown between the Vikings, the Pioneers and the Barons. But as it is, Northern Lebanon, now 15-7 overall and 11-5 in the section, claimed the runner-up spot and the L-L league playoff berth that goes with it.
As Lebnon County’s lone representative in the league playoffs, the Vikings will take on Section One champion Manheim Township on Monday at 7 p.m. in Neffsville. Northern Lebanon will also compete in the upcoming District Three Class AAA tournament and could host a play-in game in that event.
Elco concluded its campaign 7-15 overall and 5-11 in Section Three.
“It was so important, number one because it was Elco,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Ken Battistelli. “It also caps off a really good season. We talked about having a nice season, and we did. But why it was so critcial was because we wanted a shot at a section title so bad. These kids will get more meaningful games because of this.
“Nothing else mattered if we didn’t take care of business here,” Battistelli continued. “You just played as hard as you can against your rival.”
“Our girls get up for them,” said Elco interim head coach Brock Hoover, who was standing in for Ashli Shay while she was preparing to give birth to her second child. “It was a motivator for us knowing they had so much on the line. We wanted to play the spoiler. But I thought both teams made big plays on both ends.
“You know you’re in for a battle when you play them (the Vikings),” Hoover added. “You know when you wake up the next morning that you played Northern Lebanon. (NL junior Emily) Brand’t a match-up problem for everybody. They’re a team who’s going to have a nice run in the playoffs.”
But for as much as the Vikings had at-stake, they just couldn’t seem to pull away from Elco, despite leading from the opening tap. That is until late in the third quarter. That’s when Northern Lebanon truly and firmly asserted itself.
Nursing a 30-29 edge, a Brandt pull-up and a Mariah LiBrandi floater ignited a 15-2 Northern Lebanon run that settled the issue. Brandt added five more points in the run, including a dagger of a trey, LiBrandi contributed a steal and lay-in, Mikayla DiAngelis collected four points, and when everything was said and done the Vikings were sitting on a 45-31 cushion.
“We got help from a lot of sources tonight,” said Battistelli. “We have a lot of kids who can score in a lot of different ways. You think about how Brandt can slash to the basket. It was our diversity that broke it open. We struggled with our mental mistakes, but we slowly began to erase them.
“Maybe the reason they (his players) are tough is because I don’t think they’re tough,” added Battistelli. “I’m tough on them. To call us tough, that’s an awesome way for your opponent to describe you. I want us to be very tough. We’ve been in a ton of close games and we’ve won most of those close games. So I guess we are mentally tough.”
“What happens is when we try to extend our defensive pressure it makes us go faster on offense,” said Hoover. “I think that’s what happened. They got a couple of quick lay-ups. And we rushed on the offensive end and didn’t slow down.
“But you can’t fault the effort,” continued Hoover. “Each girl gave her 110 percent. In the end, it was the little things. We were below 50 percent at the foule line. We missed some lay-ups, even though we were getting the looks we wanted.”
With 19 points, Brandt led all scorers, while LiBrandi poured in ten. Victoria Swetlock popped for 15 Raider points, mostly inside, and teammate Hailee ‘Lil’ Lefty’ Parker tallied ten.
“I would say somewhere along the line between last year and this year is when Emily became the player she is today,” said Battistelli. “I told her that sometime she became more than a big, long kid and became a smart kid. I tell her, ‘I need your brains’. She was always an unselfish player, but she’s learning it’s smart to be selfish in basketball and score more points than your opponent. She’s changed her mindset and she’s going against her nature.
“No I don’t think we’ve over-achieved,” added Battistelli. “In fact, I really believe our lineup, when healthy, is very good. I think our kids showed extreme resiliency through our injuries. No we didn’t over-achieve, but we certainly manned up. When you look at the quality of players we lost, like Mikayla (DiAngelis) and (Mariah) LiBrandi and see what we were able to overcome. We’re looking forward to playing anybody we can right now.”
“What I like is the look in her eyes,” said Hoover of Brandt. “It’s like, ‘I’m not going to let us lose. We’re not going to lose this game.’ And her motor never stops. She looked as fresh in the fourth quarter as she did at the beginning of the game, and I don’t think she came out.”
After Northern Lebanon had notched the first six points of the game, a lay-in from Kristen Lessing gave the Vkings a 14-7 lead early in the second period. Despite Parker scoring eight straight Raider points and almost single-handedly keeping her team in it, a short jumper from Brandt made the NL advantage 21-16, 25 seconds before the break.
Then in the middle of the third stanza, back-to-back three-pointers by Cheyenne Hasssler pulled the Raiders to within 30-29.
“I look at them and try to see the absolute best,” said Battistelli of his charges. “I try to make them as good as they can be. I’m very proud of the way they compete. I believe in them so much. I believe they can beat anyone. Maybe that’s why I drive them so crazy.”
“Seven wins, we wanted that number to be higher,” said Hoover. “But we’ve got to get to the point where the moral-victory speech goes away. I think our girls are at the point now where they know they can compete with these teams.”