By: John Knebels
Videos/Photos: Angelise Stuhl, John Knebels & Mike Nance
PHILADELPHIA – A quick Google search confirms that Jan. 21 was the second coldest day of the new year. The frigid 35 degrees outside – probably colder around 9 PM – matched West Catholic’s basketball season up until that point.
The Burrs had just lost to Archbishop Carroll, 60-46. They had played shorthanded because junior standout guard and first-team All-Catholic Destiney McPhaul was not in the lineup. Their record was 3-4, with three of those losses via double digits. The mood was bleak.
“Destiney was showing concussed symptoms,” said West Catholic coach Beulah Osueke. “Destiney was highly upset, but the maturity that she showed to cheer the team on, despite not being able to play and contribute, showed me that she’s growing.
“The players that were out on the court didn’t complain. They didn’t moan. They played the game. That maturity and their belief in me to not question my judgment and not get mad, to not be bratty because I made the decision for the health of one of our players long term, means all the world. From there I saw them jell together. Since then, we’ve been on a winning streak.”
In front of a boisterous crowd at the fabled Palestra Feb. 24, West Catholic punctuated its resurrection with a dramatic explanation point.
Behind a brilliant 30-point performance by McPhaul and key contributions from senior Tamiah Robinson and junior Ciani Montgomery, West Catholic captured its first Catholic League championship in 22 years, defeating top-seed Archbishop Wood, 65-60, in overtime.
As much as its eighth straight victory was exhilarating for West Catholic, the defeat was devastating for Archbishop Wood.
In last year’s final, Wood lost to Archbishop Carroll in overtime. In 11 visits to the championship since 2009, the Vikings have won in 2011 and 2016 while losing the nine finals by an average of less than six points.
Because this game truly resembled a classic – both teams fought each other tooth and nail to the frenetic tune of 11 lead changes and eight deadlocks – a reenactment seems in order.
- Spurred by two Robinson treys, West seizes an early 8-0 lead and increases the margin to 19-10 after one quarter.
- The Vikings, whose only league loss this season had been to West Catholic (66-56 on Feb. 4), bounce back with 12 straight points to take their first lead at 22-19. Five points by Montgomery (16 points, three rebounds, two steals), a rebound follow by junior Safara McIntyre (five points, three rebounds, two steals, two assists), and steady defense help the Burrs regain a 26-24 advantage at halftime.
- The third quarter resembles a Wimbledon tennis final. A three-pointer by Wood senior Izzy Larson– brilliant in the clutch with 20 points,11 rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal – gives Wood a 27-26 lead, but Montgomery answers with a basket to make it 28-27. Junior Kaitlyn Orihel (23 points, 12 in the pivotal fourth quarter) scores off an assist from junior Noelle Baxter, and McPhaul responds with a three-pointer. Undaunted, Orihel drives for a bucket, and the game is tied at 31-31. The crowd is audibly nervous, if there is such a thing.
- Over the next three minutes, there would be five more lead changes, but a three-pointer by McPhaul at the buzzer opens a 41-37 lead. “Basketball is going to be a game of runs,” said Robinson. “You can’t get down on yourself. They started making runs, but we can make runs.”
- In a fourth quarter that may have left many fans feeling faint from nervousness, Orihel tallies six straight points to give Wood a 43-41 lead. McIntyre ties it at 43, but yet another basket by Orihel and another three-point swish by Larsen gives Wood its largest lead at 48-43.
- After West climbs to within 48-47 on a pair of baskets by McPhaul, two free throws by Orihel and a put back by always-underrated sophomore Bri Bowen (seven points, six rebounds, two assists, constant toughness) provide the Vikings a 52-47 lead with under three minutes remaining. McPhaul once again furnishes a dagger, a three-pointer to make it 52-50. After a nifty reverse basket by Larsen, McPhaul cans two free throws and Robinson (15 points, five rebounds, two steals) drives in to tie the game at 54-54. Orihel gives Wood another lead at 56-54, but with 8.2 seconds left, McPhaul calmly hits two free throws. “I wasn’t nervous,” said McPhaul. “I don’t get nervous. In basketball, you can’t get nervous. If you get nervous, it affects how you play. No matter the situation, you have to just play.”
- With 3.2 seconds left and Wood inbounding from the left side and now out of timeouts, Baxter connects with a streaking Orihel on an incredible bounce pass. Orihel looks like she’s about to score, but McPhaul reaches in to interrupt the flow and the ball pops in the air and lands out of bounds. Orihel motions to the referee that her arm was hit, but the official is hearing none of it, probably thinking – correctly – that there is no way this epic contest is going to end on a debatable foul call.
- With half a second left, Baxter throws another excellent pass, this time to sophomore Ryanne Allen at the top of the key. Allen catches the ball and somehow gets off a good shot, which hits the backboard and the front rim before falling to the floor.
- Simultaneously, Orihel and Allen do the same, crouching down after coming inches from a league title. A closer look at the fourth explains their angst – the Vikings either led or were tied for the final 6:41 of regulation.
- In overtime, McPhaul – who else? – cans a long three. Single free throws by Larsen and Orihel cut the deficit to 59-58, but McPhaul makes it 61-58 with a minute left and Montgomery adds a pair of free throws. Orihel scores her final points with 23.6 seconds left, but one free throw each by McPhaul and Robinson provide the game’s final points.
- With one second left, Robinson heaves the ball high in the air, and as the final buzzer sounds, the south end of the gymnasium is besieged by Burr fans.
- A visibly emotional Osueke is hugged by about 1,000 different people. She shares a memorable embrace with McPhaul that lasts for about 15 seconds. No one interrupts the coach and her star player.
West Catholic junior Destiney McPhaul led the Lady Burrs with 30 points in the PCL championship - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
Archbishop Wood junior Kaitlyn Orihel let the Lady Vikings with 23 points in the PCL championship - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
- After the players ascend a ladder and cut down the net, Osueke snips the last thread, holds it in the air, and implores the hundreds of remaining fans with a “Let’s goooo!” The crowd responds with a roar.
West Catholic senior Tamiah Robinson holds the PCL Plaque alongside her teammates - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
- In the postgame conference, Osueke is joined by McPhaul, Robinson, and Montgomery. The quad is obviously fatigued, drained by more than two hours of non-stop tension between two tremendous basketball teams. Osueke extols West’s players’ maturity and the West Catholic community at large.
- Despite their disappointment, every Wood player is amenable to an interview. Orihel gives West “so much credit” and says McPhaul “played a hell of a game.” Larsen acknowledges that the loss “was a hard one for sure, but we will bounce back.” Wood coach Mike McDonald lauds Osueke’s coaching ability, her team’s readiness, and McPhaul. “Have to tip your hat to McPhaul,” he says. “What a performance. Tough shot after tough shot.”
- Two days later, McDonald posts a tweet directed to Osueke. “What you and your players have done for your program and school is remarkable and inspiring, Congratulations and thank you for representing our league tremendously.” Osueke tweets a response in kind, thanking McDonald and the Vikings for “an excellent game last night and for consistently setting the standard so high.” She wishes the Vikings best of luck in district and state tournament play.
- At the end of an uncommonly balanced season in the Catholic League, West Catholic and Archbishop Wood – their players, coaches, families, and supporters – exhibit the class and dignity of two championship programs.
(Contact John Knebels at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.)