TYRONE - They can shoot inside and out, have a great sense of each teammate's place on the floor and have a very strong team ethic. They are the Juniata Indians, and during the regular season with their perfect 16-0 record in the Tri-Valley League, they made it clear why they deserved to be at the top of the league.
But Tuesday, when the No. 5-seed Indians took on 12th-seeded Penn Cambria in the first round of the District 6 Class AA girls basketball tournament, they got to put their non-league mettle to the test.
In the regular season Juniata went .500 in non-league action. Tuesday, they tipped that scale in the winning direction, taking Penn Cambria 53-48 in a high-intensity nail biter that was anybody's contest down to the final buzzer.
Sentinel photo by CHRISTOPHER?SHANNON
Juniata’s Victoria Varner (11)?fights for a rebound between Penn Cambria’s Megan Wheeler, left, and Emily Roberts during the Indians’ District 6 Class AA?victory over the Panthers in Tyrone Tuesday.
It was a great team effort from the start, as different Indians came up strong at various points in the game just when the team needed it. A major catalyst in the win was the return of junior forward Carly Burns, who had been sidelined with an injury the previous four games.
Burns put up a team-high 22 points - two behind Penn Cambria's Kaitlyn Krug - and none of these were more important than the ones Burns gained from the line in the fourth quarter.
The final stanza started even at 33-33 - in fact, each quarter started with no more than a one-point difference - and Burns went to the line a total of five times, netting 8-of-10 to help lead the Indians to the victory.
"This is her first game back after four games of not playing. She was huge," Juniata coach Meghan Geedey said. "But honestly, the team as a whole just made big plays. Victoria (Varner) came up and made a big clutch three there to put us up."
The 3-pointer Geedey referenced occurred late in the fourth, after Burns had put Juniata up for good at 45-44 with one of her many fourth-quarter free throws, Varner put one up from beyond the arc on the Indians' next possession to expand the lead to 48-44.
The next play down the court, with less than a minute left to play, Juniata's third fourth-quarter hero arose in the form of Joelle Winey, when she drew a charge against Krug to take once and for all the momentum which had already begun to swing in Juniata's favor.
"It was just super on her part to take that charge," Geedey said. "I told them, 'You've got to know where (Krug) is and if you step up and you put your hands up, you're going to get a charge, because she's going to come straight into you.'"
The significance of this charge was not only that it prevented the Panthers from cutting into Juniata's slim lead, but it meant that Krug, who had been burning the Indians on transition all night long with her break-away layups, picked up her fourth foul.
Krug was skating on thin ice, and had only seconds left in the game before she crashed through when she fouled Burns on the next play, officially taking herself out of the contest and allowing Burns to expand the lead to 50-46 with just 22 second left on the clock.
In the remainder of the game, each team was able to put up a few more points before the final buzzer.
Coming into the game, Penn Cambria had a 12-10 overall record, in comparison to Juniata's 20-2 record, but the Panthers hail from the tough Laurel Highland Athletic Conference, and the differences in the teams' records might have been deceptive.
"We knew coming in that we were going to have to play well and shut down their shooters. They definitely have a nice team, and I don't know anything about the Laurel Highlands Conference, but I've heard that it's pretty tough, and I knew that it was going to be a war," Geedey said.
In fact, in the very first quarter, Penn Cambria made it clear it was going to put up a fight, outscoring the Indians 14-13 in the first quarter, and consistently burning the Indians with its fast transition from defense to offense to keep it knotted up at 23-23 going into the break.
"I told the girls, 'you can't contest any defensive rebounds, you've got to sprint back,'" Geedey said. "And I thought for the most part we did that. We were very concerned about their shooter (Bri Mulhern) and we shut her down completely I think."
Mulhern, who typically hits around 12 points a game, only managed to put up four points, which is a testament to the Indians' stifling defense throughout the entire game.
In fact, Krug was the only Panther who could consistently beat the Indians' offense, as in most cases she was just too quick on her feet and unstoppable in her shooting for Juniata to shut her down.
"She's tough. She's really quick, she handles the ball really well," Geedey said.
But one major difference between Juniata and Penn Cambria is that whereas the Panthers relied primarily on Krug to drive the offense, the Indians have a whole arsenal of shooting threats, and in the end this was one of the major differences in the game.
In the first quarter, it was big threes from Janelle Swartz and Varner which drove the Indians' offense. Then in the second Juniata switched things up, moving away from the perimeter to the paint, as Burns drove to the basket to put up eight of Juniata's 10 second-quarter points.
In the third, Swartz kicked off Juniata's offense with a three, and for the rest of the quarter Varner, Burns and Winey worked together to show just how multi-faceted Juniata's offense can be.
"I just can't say enough for my team and how much they battle on," Geedey said.
It truly was a battle Tuesday night, but only just the beginning - Friday the Indians will take on No. 4 Blairsville in the quarterfinals at a time and place to be determined.