WINGATE - With her notable height advantage and the skills to capitalize for 29 points, State College's Kyla Irwin is a player the Mifflin County girls basketball team won't soon forget.
Saturday, Irwin and the No. 2 seed Little Lions handed No. 3 Mifflin County a 68-49 loss in the District 6 Class AAAA semifinals, frustrating the Huskies' attempt to win the first girls basketball postseason game in school history.
"I thought 50 was going to win this," said Mifflin County coach Roger Herto, whose team fell to the Little Lions in both regular season games by scores of 57-52 and 51-40.
However, despite regular season trends, State College pulled through for its biggest win yet, and although Irwin was a major factor, Saturday was a perfect example of why basketball is a team sport.
In the third quarter, Mifflin County put up 16 points and reduced what had been a double-digit lead by the Little Lions to just two points. The Huskies also clamped down on defense against Irwin and fellow post player Jalyn Shelton-Burleigh to significantly reduce their damage under the basket, but that's when the Little Lion guards took the spotlight.
Keyed by a 3-point play by Carrie Mahon as she was fouled completing a lay-up, the Little Lion guards combined for 14 points in the third quarter as Mifflin County held Irwin and Shelton-Burleigh to just two points apiece.
As it turned out, that was just what the Little Lions needed as Mifflin County's Ashleigh Williams hit three of her game-high five treys in the quarter to spark the Huskies' offense. Teammate Jessa Wright also hit a trey near the middle of the quarter to reduce State College's lead to two points; however, Irwin and Shelton-Burleigh quickly answered with their sole buckets of the quarter, Mahon finished her 3-point play and the rest of the guards came through to extend State College's lead to 51-40 heading into the final quarter.
"To me the key if you have a good post player is, if they're very good in there, you have to get the pressure on the guards. You can't let a guard just sit there and get the ball out there. And I thought sometimes we weren't out on those guards enough," Herto said.
By the fourth quarter, Mifflin County was still giving everything it had on defense - and forced several turnovers as a result - but the offense was no longer there and State College piled on 17 more points for the eventual 68-49 win.
First-quarter action featured a 13-point effort by Irwin, while Mifflin County's Williams and Breanna Cline scored five apiece, Wright hit one from the line and Rebeka Knable was good for a 2-pointer.
In the second Wright and Cline worked hard underneath to slow down Irwin - she had five in the stanza - but Bridget King came through with one of her two 3-pointers and a short jumper to make up some of the difference. Shelton-Burleigh also had five in the quarter.
"I think that's a big key for them, but it's not just her," Herto said of Shelton-Burleigh. "I think they've had other kids step up."
For Mifflin County, Williams finished with a team-high 24 points. Knable was second highest with nine.
Herto said he had expected to win the game, but was very complimentary of State College coach Bethany Irwin.
"If there are true Coach of the Year honors in the Mid-Penn, it has to be Bethany Irwin," he said. "If you look at what they had coming into this season, they had lost a great shooter on that team, a bunch of young kids coming in there, everybody keying on Kyla - I just think Bethany has done a superb job."
As he reflected on the closing of the season, Herto also shared a memory about his days coaching at Indian Valley when the Warriors and Lewistown played each other for the final time. It was a game when seniors Williams, Cline, Taylor Dietrich, Knable and Megan Peachey were just freshmen.
"Who would have known that four years later they're here finishing their career together?" Herto asked.
"You can't come into a new program and have it work if your seniors don't buy in. And those five kids, I'm really proud of them," he said.
State College (16-7) advances to play Altoona, a 54-47 winner over Hollidaysburg, for the district title, while Mifflin County (12-11) puts its sights on next year's postseason.
"I thanked the seniors for what they had done and I told the other class the bar is still sitting there," Herto said. "You've got to get over that bar, and that's got to be our focus tomorrow."