By: Ed Morrone
Photos: by Kathy Leister
BLUE BELL — When the unthinkable happened the previous night, which was the Germantown Academy Patriots falling in the PAISAA semifinals, the Penn Charter girls’ basketball team smelled an advantage.
After all, this year's Inter-Ac Champions were the Quakers’ kryptonite, with two of the team’s three losses to date coming in lopsided decisions to their chief rival. The only problem for Penn Charter, which had advanced to the title game that same night with a hard-fought 70-61 win over Notre Dame, was that the team had to get through Abington Friends, the upstart challenger that had stunned the Patriots in a 63-42 upset.
In that victory, the fifth-seeded Kangaroos got to the foul line 26 times, with 22 of those trips being made by freshman guard Ty’Lah Washington. AFS overwhelmed GA by scoring at the rim, getting to the line and mixing in a few three-pointers to boot.
Roughly 24 hours after the GA win, the Kangaroos used the same formula to dispatch No. 2 Penn Charter, whose only other loss this season besides the two GA defeats came to AFS back on Dec. 3. This time around, the underdog again got to the line 26 times while imposing their will underneath at the basket while mixing in the occasional opportune deep ball.
Led by Washington (19 points) and junior Zaniyyah Ross-Barnes (27 points), the Kangaroos eliminated the Quakers in a 65-59 PAISAA championship victory.
Penn Charter, who finished runner-up to GA in the regular season, always assumed it would have to get through the Patriots to win this tournament. Alas, they couldn’t knock off GA’s feisty challenger.
“They played really solid like they did against GA the night before,” said Penn Charter senior Carmen Williams, who scored a team-high 16 points. “They came out with intensity, which we saw earlier this season.”
The first half was a back-and-forth affair, as AFS led 11-10 after one and took a 29-23 advantage into halftime. After a Williams three trimmed the AFS lead to 33-32 early in the third quarter, Ross-Barnes connected on consecutive treys to stretch the lead right back to seven. Every time the Quakers punched, the Kangaroos’ counterpunch was swift and fierce, and PC never got closer than three points the rest of the way.
“Every time we got into striking distance, we just couldn’t get over that hump to take the lead,” PC head coach Joe Maguire said. “We tried to meet them at the rim on defense, but their girls just shot over us. If they didn’t score, they were getting foul calls. We didn’t have anything to contest that.
“I told my wife this morning that you want to get to this day. I just wish we could have played better. It makes it tough knowing we didn’t play our best game, or even our B-level game. We missed a lot of makeable shots, as well as foul shots, and to their credit, they didn’t miss.”
Directly behind Williams on the score sheet was senior Kait Carter with 14 points, an appropriate result given that this duo has accomplished so much together and have been attached at the hip since entering the program as freshmen. Earlier this season, Williams and Carter both crossed the career 1,000-point milestone together; not only did they do so in the same game, but they got it within a few minutes of one another in the same period. Williams finished her stellar career with 1,223 points, while Carter, who will play next season at Chestnut Hill College, was not far behind at 1,171. (According to Maguire, Williams is still sorting out her college decision, but said Rider and Saint Joseph’s have both been in touch, as well as some Division-II programs.)
The result was a hard pill to swallow, getting so close to the program’s first PAISAA championship, but the outcome did nothing to diminish the accomplishments of a team that finished the season 25-4. Last season, the Quakers won 23 games, which broke a previous single-season record, and they followed it up by breaking it again this year.
"And the team didn’t even acknowledge that,” Williams said of breaking the single season wins mark. “I can appreciate it already, what we accomplished and how far our team came. We have things to look back on once we get to college, to see how good this team was and how much we dominated.”
“We’ll definitely remember this season forever,” added Carter, her voice cracking with emotion. “Carmen and I came in together, and it was so cool getting to score our 1,000th points together. I feel like that’s something you rarely see, and to do it with someone I’ve been with since ninth grade was a real pleasure.”
Now, the focus shifts on where the Quakers program goes from here. Gone will be Williams and Carter, as well as glue-girl seniors Hayley Hunt and India Barnes; however, PC will return its top two scorers from this season, freshmen Kelsey Bess and Aleah Snead. Although Williams and Carter dominated much of this team’s discourse (and deservedly so), the freshman duo continuously got better as the season progressed. Snead, who was held to just one point in the first half against AFS (20-8), erupted for 13 in the final two quarters, and she and Bess (seven points) play an effective high-low game that makes them as dangerous from long range as they are finishing at the rim.
The key for those two will be to reach another gear this offseason. As Maguire recounted, Williams and Carter also had strong freshman seasons that were buoyed by a strong senior class. When those seniors graduated, Williams and Carter struggled as sophomores before rebounding to lead the team to 48 wins in their finals two seasons.
“It’s going to be tougher for them now, because they’ll lead the scouting report,” Maguire said. “The message to them and the other returners is they can’t come back the same players. They have to start working now in order to get back to this point.”
Count Carter and Williams as big-time believers in the young, rising talent on the roster.
“Aleah and Kelsey have played AAU together, and just like Carmen and I, they find each other in open spots and know how to play well together,” Carter said. “Next year, we’re going to need them to be leaders and hopefully carry us back here.”
Williams did not argue with that sentiment.
“They are good, and they are young,” she said. “If they work hard, they can keep it going and continue everything that we were able to start.”
The night before Abington Friends took down Penn Charter, the two teams had to win games that would propel them into the title game. Below is a closer look at how they arrived there:
Semifinal #1: No. 5 Abington Friends 63, No. 1 Germantown Academy 42
As previously mentioned above, GA (25-5) simply had no answers for Abington Friends on Friday night at Friends Central. The Patriots were down three starters, with seniors Caitlyn Priore (Gettysburg) and Elle Stauffer (Harvard) out with injuries and junior Becca Booth out due to an illness, and to make matters worse, star point guard Maddie Vizza (Northeastern) exited the game in the first 90 seconds after picking up her second foul.
Senior guard Jaye Haynes (La Salle) led the Patriots with 13 points, while Vizza had eight and Jessica Moore contributed seven. Freshman Kendall Bennett, who will be a big part of the five-time defending league champion’s plans next season, finished with nine points and 15 rebounds.
It was a tough pill to swallow for GA, which won the PAISAA tournament a year ago, but in the end this season was yet another dominant display from the program that has won 18 of the last 20 league titles.
“Having seven seniors is unusual and having six who are committed to play college sports is unheard of (Sarah DiLello will play softball at Ursinus, and Maddie Burns will head to Michigan for lacrosse),” head coach Sherri Retif said. “It was a tight-knit group that had a lot of fun and worked really hard. I was still confident that we were going to win this game, and while it didn’t fall our way, I never stopped believing.
“What did I say to them after? I told them, ‘I love you,’ and there’s nothing else to say. They are awesome girls in every aspect, great athletes and people who worked so hard. I love them to death, and I want them to know that.”
Retif will lose those seven seniors but will return a talented core next season that will include seniors Booth and Moore, junior Charlotte DiLello and sophomores Bennett and Lilly Funk.
“They’ll have to remember us not being successful here, because a lot of the time we win that championship game,” Retif said. “It’s something to build on, and there will be a lot of talent there to do it.”
Washington led AFS with 25 points, while Ross-Barnes added 16.
Semifinal #2: No. 2 Penn Charter 70, No. 3 Notre Dame 61
In a spirited, hard-fought, back-and-forth first half, Inter-Ac rivals Penn Charter and Academy of Notre Dame traded punches. The Irish led 22-18 after one and their largest lead in the first half was eight; however, led by Williams (18 points) and Carter (14 points), the Quakers never blinked and gradually fought their way back into the game.
With Notre Dame leading 39-38 early in the second half, PC got three-pointers on three straight possessions from Bess, Williams and Barnes. The Irish (19-8) cut the lead to 58-57 early in the fourth quarter, but Williams scored the next four and the Quakers were able to close Notre Dame out at the foul line. Aleah Snead (14 points) and Kelsey Bess (12 points) each contributed strong efforts offensively for PC.
“Our threes started going in,” Williams said. “We made the extra pass that allowed us to get our shot, and we played good defense. They kept coming, but so did we, and in the end, they couldn’t stop us.”
“Notre Dame is a really good team,” Carter added. “Every time we play them, it seems like we’re either up by three or down by three. We came together as a team in the second half. The first half was up and down, but eventually, our shots started consistently going in.”
The loss ended a stellar season for head coach Lauren Thomer Power’s Irish. Playing without starter Izzy Casale, who was ill, Notre Dame got a game-high 21 points from senior Allie Lynch, while sophomore Maeve McErlane added 16 as the two made one big shot after another to keep their team in the game until nearly the final buzzer. It was a year of tremendous progress for the Irish, which only left them hungry for more next season.
“We knew going in knowing that it was going to be a battle,” Thomer Power said. “Allie was sensational in her last game in an Irish uniform, and all our players stepped up big time. The outcome doesn’t tell the story of our resilient effort, heart and toughness that we played with all season. In 15 years of coaching, I’ve never been more proud of a team.”