Both Jeremy Thomas of Hershey and Nathan Stienike of North Platte St. Pat’s said that Saturday’s South Platte Valley Association finals was “a classic Hershey-St. Pat’s game”.
But in the end, Hershey showed poise under pressure to win the SPVA for the second straight year by beating the Irish 33-31 at the McDonald-Belton Gymnasium.
“It feels great,” said Hershey’s Maegan Hiatt, who scored a game-high 16 points. “It’s always awesome to win your conference tournament.”
As has been typical of the St. Pat’s-Hershey series the past few years, which has seen the two area powerhouses play each other in the SPVA tournament finals for the last three seasons, neither team got much of an edge early on and both the Panthers and the Irish felt each other out in the first quarter.
Hershey led 9-8 at the end of the first. St. Pat’s then scored the first six points of the second quarter on baskets by Bree Saner, Anna O’Malley and Toni Caudillo.
But that was where Hiatt made her presence known. The senior guard buried two straight three-pointers to score her first six points of the game and give the Lady Panthers (17-1) the lead.
“The first half was difficult because they played such great defense,” Hiatt said. “I knew I had to find my shot and thankfully, I did.”
Both teams spent the rest of the first half trading baskets. But with five seconds left until halftime, Hiatt buried another three to give Hershey a 20-19 lead.
But despite being down, Stienike said that he liked how the Irish (13-3) played in the first half.
“I thought in the first half, we played really good,” he said. “We were finding shooters and we had real good energy. We showed we were not scared of the big stage.”
Hershey took control of the game coming out of the locker room. Brooke Munsen scored her first and only bucket of the game and then Hiatt scored the next three points on free throws before Maddie Seamann scored inside to make it 27-19.
Brittany Lawrence scored to end the drought for St. Pat’s. But that was the only two points the Lady Irish got in the third quarter and it was 29-21 at the end of the third as Taylor Mustion got one to go down in the final seconds.
“We came out strong and we made some adjustments at halftime,” Thomas said. “We hit some big shots and we played great defense. We shut out Toni and Anna on the outside and Brittany on the inside.”
But early in the fourth, the game turned when Seamann picked up her fourth foul. As Hershey’s tallest player by at least four inches, the 6-foot-1 senior’s absence opened the door for St. Pat’s to get back into the game behind Lawrence.
The 6-3 senior scored the first three points of the quarter on a free throw and a basket before she fed Saner, who cut to the basket along the baseline for a backdoor layup to bring the Irish to within 29-26.
Then on the next possession, Lawrence scored again on a layup to make it a one-point game with 4:30 to go.
“It helped when Maddie Seamann got in foul trouble and we were able to exploit that with Brittany,” Stienike said. “We also limited them to one shot on defense.”
Thomas called timeout after the Lawrence basket. Even though there was a lot of time left, he knew that the next possession would be crucial. Even though there was a lot of time left, the Lady Panthers couldn’t lose the next possession. Anything short of two points for Hershey would have given more momentum to St. Pat’s and they couldn’t afford that to happen.
The result that came out of the timeout was something that Thomas couldn’t have foreseen. The Panthers held on the ball for almost the next four minutes. One minute went by and then two as Hershey dribbled the ball around the perimeter.
“We don’t get rattled,” Hiatt said. “We wanted to keep it under control. We knew we didn’t have to force it so we knew we can hang on to the ball.”
They put up one shot but they got the offensive rebound to run more time off the clock. Then as the clock neared 30 seconds, Ryce Troyer went up for a shot in the low block against Lawrence thinking the odds were good that she would at least get fouled on the shot or maybe even score. But with Lawrence being eight inches taller than Troyer, it was an airball and nothing was called. St. Pat’s called timeout after bringing the ball past half-court.
It appeared that Hershey’s gamble went bust. But after the timeout, Saner was called for an illegal screen in the backcourt by trying to free O’Malley from Hiatt.
After the turnover, Hiatt was fouled with 21 seconds remaining and she made both free throws to make it 31-28.
The Lady Irish opted to try and get a quick basket as O’Malley drove to the hoop on the ensuing possession. Her shot missed but Lawrence got the rebound and she was fouled by Seamann on her putback attempt with 14 seconds to go.
But Lawrence missed both free throws and Hiatt was there to get the rebound for the Panthers. After being fouled immediately, Hiatt made two more free throws to all but seal Hershey’s second straight conference championship.
“Everyday in practice, we practice pressure free throws and I always seem to miss them,” Hiatt said. “But I always make them in games.”
Caudillo made an uncontested three in the final seconds but the Lady Panthers didn’t even have to inbound the ball afterwards as the buzzer sounded and the celebration began.
“St. Pat’s made a run and it was nerve-racking,” Thomas said. “But I never had any doubt in our girls. I am proud of how we handled the ball in the end. We weren’t trying to run clock, we were just running our sets and St. Pat’s defended them really well. We got them in a situation where they had to foul and Maegan made some free throws in just some big situations.”
Hershey 9 11 9 4 - 33
St. Pat's 8 11 2 10 - 31
Hershey (33)-Taylor Mustion 2, Mariah DaMoude 2, Brooke Munsen 2, Maegan Hiatt 16, Maddie Seamann 11
St. Pat's (31)-Anna O'Malley 9, Toni Caudillo 5, Bree Saner 6, Brittany Lawrence 11
Free Throws: H 8-11, SP 1-6; Three Point Goals: H 3 (Hiatt 3), SP 2 (O'Malley, Caudillo)