MEADVILLE — A date in the District 10 Class 2A Semifinals proved hard to come by for the Maplewood girls basketball team on Saturday at Meadville High School when the Tigers matched up against the Mercer Mustangs.
Mercer (13-11) played up to the challenge of facing top-seeded Maplewood (21-2), holding a slim one-point halftime advantage. However, the Tigers rallied coming out of the locker room in the second half, and survived a late Mustang surge to earn a date in the semifinal round with a 64-56 victory.
By advancing to the semifinal round, the Tigers are guaranteed their second straight PIAA Tournament appearance, as District 10 will have four representatives in the state dance.
“We wanted that,” Maplewood coach Kyle Krepps said of making the state tournament. “It’s great to be able to move on. You always want that state playoff game. It has a nice ring to it.”
Trailing at halftime, however, didn’t have a nice ring for the Maplewood Tigers.
Mercer was able to make it game with its ability to drive to the basket and get Maplewood into foul trouble early. Julia Balaski scored 17 of her team-high 22 points in the first half, with nine of those coming in the opening frame.
Sadie Thomas, who had 11 points on the afternoon, kept Maplewood afloat in the first quarter by matching Balaski’s three 2-pointers and one bucket from behind the arc. Izzy Eimer notched a deuce and a trey, while Liliane Moorhead contributed two buckets from the post to help the Tigers grab an 18-14 lead after the first quarter.
Balaski and her teammates continued to work inside the paint in the second quarter. Mercer went to the charity stripe 13 times in the period, making 11 of those attempts. Darby Miller went 4 for 4 at the line, adding a bucket from short and long range to total nine points in the frame toward her game total of 15.
The time spent at the line meant the fouls were racking up for members of the Tigers starting lineup. Moorhead was tagged with three personals by halftime with a couple of having a pair.
“We knew they could drive it well, and as much as I talked about it, we still didn’t stop them from driving,” Krepps said. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell them, ‘They’re going to drive.’ We didn’t get into position and then got cheap fouls. It wasn’t our best defensive performance of the year, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, Maplewood went extremely cold from the floor on the offensive end. The Tigers were 3 of 18 from 3-point range in the canto and 2 of 6 from inside the arc. What kept the Region 2 champions from digging themselves a larger hole than their one point, 34-33, deficit at the half was their work on the glass.
Over the course of the night, Maplewood out-rebounded Mercer 50-31, with Moorhead (15), Eimer (11) and Thomas (10) collecting double figures. Second-chance opportunities were key in Eimer’s 10-point second quarter.
Being down by one at the break, Krepps said afterwards that he didn’t sense any panic from his players in the locker room.
“I don’t know if we were nervous, but it was like, ‘Oh, okay.’” I think (our girls) thought they had this going into the game. They were tuned in and knew what we had to do because they did it at times (in the first half).”
Maplewood came out for the third quarter with a purpose. Two straight 3-pointers from senior Jordan Roser, who had 11 points in the frame, sparked a 10-0 run to open the quarter.
Roser, who had been playing through a back injury, wasn’t a lock to play in Saturday’s quarterfinal, according to Krepps. The fifth-year Maplewood coach said after the game that Roser had missed some practices leading up to the game, and that he had been preparing as if she wouldn’t be on the court.
Roser, on the other hand, said she “determined to play,” and finished with 17 points and five made treys.
“There was no way I wasn’t playing,” Roser said. “To come out strong in the third quarter, it was more of my team building me up and encouraging me. That’s what sparked my run.”
With the Tiger offense beginning to click, Maplewood matched that effort on the defensive end of the floor. A lay-up by Peyton Miller at the 2:57 mark accounted for the only Mercer points of the quarter. Balaski was also held to just one shot attempt by the Tigers’ sixth-man Cassidy Mangus, as Maplewood took a 50-36 lead into the final period.
“The third quarter was good for us,” Krepps said. “It was our best quarter by far. We were in the gaps on drives. Then, we stopped them on the boards. I think they were confident.
“I thought Cassidy did a great job on (Balaski). She was more disciplined than usual. She tends to foul a lot, but she didn’t do that today.”
Even with a 14-point lead in hand to start the fourth, Maplewood could not put away the pesky the Mustangs easily.
With 5:57 to go, the Tigers had a 54-41 advantage, but the Mustangs switched to a full-court press on defense that was able to turn the Tigers over five times in the ensuing 2 1/2 minutes. Mercer cut its deficit down to 54-50 when Balaski stole a Maplewood in-bounds pass and sank the lay-up a couple of feet away. Krepps immediately called a timeout, with 3:38 left to play.
“We have to do a better job in the situations at the end of the game,” Krepps said. “That press was nothing, and we threw it away. There’s no excuses. It’s not rust or having not been in a tight game in a while; just poor decisions.”
Mercer stayed within four points until the 2:00 mark when the Tigers were sent to the free throw line in the closing seconds of the contest. Eimer went 9 for 10 at the charity stripe in the second half and finished with a game-high 24 points, while Thomas added a pair for the final points of the game, as Maplewood held on for the 64-56 victory and its 13th straight win.
“That was a surprise,” Eimer said of her success at the line after making half of her attempts during the regular season. “I wasn’t hitting it from behind the arc, so I decided to make up for it (at the line).”
Maplewood’s opponent in the semifinals will be a familiar foe, in Cochranton, with the two clubs facing each other at Meadville High School on Wednesday at 8 p.m. for the third time this season.
“It’s definitely challenging to beat a team three times,” Roser said. “We know we can do it if we play together as a team. We don’t want to go into it overconfident, but not scared either because we know we can do it.”