BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – It was more than simple redemption.
It was an epic upset that only they thought they could pull off.
It was an outcome that erased the only negative of what had already been the greatest girls’ basketball season in school history.
It spoke to the essence of what is true and right about sports.
It was the biggest win in program history.
On Wednesday night at Milton Hershey School’s Spartan Center, Northern Lebanon shocked everyone except itself by pulling away from powerful Lancaster Catholic 54-45, in the second round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament. Not only did the triumph avenge three earlier losses to the Crusaders, the result pushed the Vikings into the state elite eight for the first time ever.
The key moment in the contest occurred two minutes into the fourth quarter, with the Vikings protecting a 37-35 edge. Out of a timeout and with an advantage in team fouls, Northern Lebanon went to its ball-handling-heavy, delay offense, and the Vikings proceeded to outscore Lancaster Catholic 17-10 the rest of the way – all of which came from 17 of 25 foul shooting.
Included in that stretch was a 13-5 run, as Northern Lebanon opened a 50-40 lead on two Liz Voight foul shots with 1:18 remaining. By limiting Crusader possessions and causing the Lancaster Catholic offense to appear out of sorts, the Vikings held their opponent without a point for a key 4:13 span of the final period.
“Yeah. Ever,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Ken Battistelli, to the significance of the triumph. “It does so much. These girls never have to look at another opponent again and tremble. The fact is, none of these kids are going to graduate. It makes everything going forward exciting. I didn’t know what to say to the kids besides, ‘Thanks!’. ‘Thanks for being my kids. Thanks for being my team’.
“It was really hard for me to address the team before the game,” continued Battiselli. “I told them, ‘If you’re anything like me, there’s a voice in my belly saying, ‘Not this team. Not again’. I said to the girls, ‘Tell that voice ‘no.’ ‘Tonight we do it’. ‘No.’ If you heard me on the bench, I kept saying, ‘No’.”
The Vikings are now 1-3 against Lancaster Catholic this season, and 27-0 against everyone else. The fifth-place finisher out of District Three, Northern Lebanon will now take on District Seven sixth-place finisher South Park, which dispensed Forest Hills 52-26, in Saturday’s state quarterfinals, at a site and time to be determined.
Lancaster Catholic, the District Three champion, concluded its campaign at 29-2. The Crusaders had defeated the Vikings 39-33 in the District Three quarterfinals at Garden Spot on February 20, 46-34 in the Lancaster-Lebanon League championship game at Warwick on February 12 and 53-49 in an L-L Section Three-Four crossover contest on January 13.
“I don’t know what to think about any of this,” said Battistelli. “You can’t have a rivalry until you can win. We beat our biggest rival, and we did it on the biggest stage.
“Tomorrow, we’ll be happy,” added Battistelli. “When we get together for our meeting, it will be great. Now is not the time to pat ourselves on the butt. If we can beat Lancaster Catholic, why can’t we beat the next team? Or the next team? It’s not just hope now. It’s real.”
After battling back from a double-digit, opening-quarter deficit, the Vikings took a 32-31 edge – their first lead since 3-2 – on a couple of Megan Brandt charity tosses, with 2:06 left in the third period. A driving lay-in from Zerman 31 seconds into the final quarter gave the Vikings a 37-35 advantage.
“We don’t match up,” said Battistelli. “We don’t match up well with them at all. Kiki (Lancaster Catholic freshman, Jefferson) is a good player. Their guards are as strong as bulls. For us to contend, we’ve got to play 150 percent hard for four quarters. If we don’t give everything we’ve got, they’re going to run right through us.
“One of the things, last time they played us, they got us playing too fast,” Battistelli continued. “We’re not big enough and fast enough to play with them constantly. They kept their aggressiveness, but we spread them out.”
An emerging sophomore, Voight poured in a game-high 19 points and grabbed ten rebounds for Northern Lebanon, while Brandt contributed 17 points and a dozen boards and Zerman collected 15 points. Just as important was Zerman’s defense on Jefferson, as she limited the Crusader star to eight points.
Lancaster Catholic outscored Northern Lebanon 15-6 beyond the arc, but the Vikings enjoyed a 22-4 scoring advantage at the charity stripe.
“The thing with Voight is she’s unconscious,” said Battistelli. “She has no fear. I don’t know if she gets nervous. She has taken off. She’s become someone people should be talking about. She gives us three barrels, instead of two.
“It’s real simple,” added Battistelli. “They beat us three times. But they never beat all of us. Tonight there were no excuses. I told the girls, ‘You have to be better than you’ve ever been’. Everybody on our team had their moments.”
Northern Lebanon had just ripped off six unanswered points – four from Brandt and two from Zerman – early in the second period to pull within 21-17 of the Crusaders, when Brandt was forced to the bench with her third foul. But instead of falling further behind, the Vikings moved to within 24-21 on a Voight drive and 26-23 on a Zerman leaner.
“That was a huge point,” said Battistelli. “But I think we actually gained points. You don’t lose Brandt and not think you’re in trouble. But we held it together.
“It’s really hard with all of our girls on the floor,” continued Battistelli. “But with Brandt on the bench, it takes a lot out of our offense, especially inside. We did a great job of hanging on. Liz was huge. Zoe was huge.”
An early 10-0 run gave Lancaster Catholic a 10-3 lead. The hot-shooting Crusaders finished the first quarter with four three-pointers and a 21-11 advantage.
“We started the game a little shell-shocked, and bang, we were down ten,” said Battistelli. “Naturally I yelled at them (his troops) and challenged them. Nobody shoots that well against us. I told them, ‘That will go away. And everyone’s got to score the basketball, or we can’t make up ten points.
“Nobody shoots that good for four quarters,” added Battistelli. “And nobody shoots like that against us. It was like artillery fire. Bang-bang. But you know how I am. I challenged them and questioned the heck out of them.”
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