BY JEFF FALK HAZELTON – All post-season long the Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball team has engaged in a dangerous game of Russian Roulette. This time, the Beavers couldn’t dodge the bullet.
Yet another sluggish beginning proved fatal to Lebanon Catholic on Wednesday night, in a second-round game of the PIAA Class A playoffs. At Hazelton High School, the Beavers dug an early hole with poor defense and missed opportunities, and eventually suffered a 66-43 season-ending loss to Old Forge.
Lebanon Catholic trailed by double figures in the opening period and faced a 35-12 defict at halftime. The Beavers were burned consistently off the dribble by Old Forge’s slashing forward, Lauren Carey, who finished with an even 40 points.
Lebanon Catholic, which had overcome slow starts in earlier playoff victories over Muncy and Veritas Academy, concluded its campaign at 20-7. Along the way, the highlight of the Beavers’ season was their 17th District Three Class A championship.
Old Forge, the reigning District Two champion, improved to 19-8 on the year.
“The first couple of possessions we turned it over,” said Lebanon Catholic head coach Patti Hower. “We never got into a rhythm and we got tight. Give Old Forge credit, they had us out of sync. We missed some shots and missed some foul shots.
“Well, if I knew why we started slow we would’ve corrected it,” Hower continued. “I don’t know. I don’t know how much of it was mental.”
“I don’t know,” said Stevie Fortna, the Beavers’ senior point guard. “Maybe it’s the way we warm up. I don’t think we got into the game until midway through the first quarter, and by that time they had a lead on us. We’ve been able to come back against some teams, but not against a team like that.”
The Beavers went without a score for the opening 3:46 of the game and trailed 11-3 late in first period. But the Blue Devils tallied the last six points of the period to expand its advantage to 17-5.
Things went from bad to worse for Catholic in the second stanza. A Fortna free throw got the Beavers to within 18-9, before Old Forge outscored them 17-3 to close out the first half.
“I told them at halftime, ‘We dug a pretty deep hole for oursleves,'” said Hower. “‘Not that we can’t come back. But we’re going to have to work hard to do it.’
“We needed the loose balls,” Hower added. “We needed not to give them second chances. I felt like we were being out-hustled. Down 23, it wasn’t impossible, but you’ve got to chip away. They (her players) battled to the end.”
“We weren’t expecting it,” said Fortna, who collected a team-high 19 points. “I don’t think anyone came out ready to play. We weren’t expecting them (the Blue Devils) to be like that.
“We needed to score on offense,” Fortna added. “At times that was happening, but we couldn’t get a stop on defense. Number 21 (Carey), every single time she went to the hoop. We reacted too late.”
Finally playing with a sense of urgency, Lebanon Catholic made a strong run at Old Forge in the third period. A 12-4 burst, which included a pair of treys from Fortna, pulled the Beavers to within 39-24 in the middle of the period.
The Beavers then closed the third with two straight baskets, and when senior Kate Pastal connected on a jumper 16 seconds into the final period, Lebanon Catholic was within 11, at 44-33. But LC would go without a point for the next four minutes, and that sealed its fate.
“We got it down to 11 at one point,” said Hower. “But we had to expend a lot of energy to get there. But we did make a run at them.
“I saw Old Forge on film, and this was their best game of the year,” continued Hower. “The girl who had 40 points (Carey) averages nine points a game. We’re slow and we just couldn’t keep up with their foot speed. When a girl gets 40, that’s bad defense on our part. She was very, very quick.
“The only person who could’ve really guarded her was Kate (Pastal) and Kate doesn’t guard foul-line players well. Whatever they tried worked.”
Using her left and right hand with equal skill, Carey netted her 40 on 14 buckets, only one of which was a three-pointer, and 11-of-13 free throwing. Carey had 22 points at halftime, as the Blue Devils went 12-for-14 as a team from the charity stripe.
For the game, Old Forge connected on 21 of 25 foul shots and outscored the Beavers by nine points there.
“Right now, we feel pretty bad,” said Hower. “But in a few days we’ll remember some of the good things. That district championship is something we’ll never forget. That was one of my best wins.
“There were a lot of tears in the locker room,” Hower continued. “Everybody was disappointed. In a couple of days we’ll feel better. We had a very good season and we have something to show for it. That’s what we’re going to remember.
“That (the district title) was a goal from Day One. And they (her players) worked hard to get it. We tried to make each individual player better, so we could make the team better.”
“Mrs. Hower said in the locker room, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened,'” said Fortna. “I did play one of my best games at Giant Center (in the district championship game). We’ll forget the losses, but remember the wins.
“That’s (the district title) what we wanted to happen,” Fortna concluded. “We knew we were either going to win the state championship or have our season end with a loss. But it would’ve been nice to put up more of a fight.”