Strong 4th not enough

NORTHUMBERLAND – With the first shot of the second half, a seemingly routine bucket by Alexis Hahn-Kline, Juniata Mennonite had a lead over Sunbury Christian – the first time the Lions could say that in Tuesday’s Allegheny Christian Athletic Association girls basketball game.

The homestanding Eagles didn’t allow that to last. And despite plenty of chances to take it at the end, Juniata Mennonite fell short against the Eagles, 23-22.

The game pitted two of the top three in the ACAA East, and while the loss hardly took the Lions out of the league tournament race, it was a game that would have put the Juniata County school in strong position had its team gotten the win.

The 10-9 lead in Juniata Mennonite’s favor evaporated as the third continued, with Sunbury stretching its advantage to 19-11 late in the period on a Jessalyn Stuck 3-pointer.

Hahn-Kline nailed a few buckets in the back half and added a free throw – she ended up as her team’s top scorer with nine – as the Lions got within three, then one, then led as the clock ticked into the final minute on a Molly Arnold basket.

But Sunbury’s Torri Erdman – the game’s top scorer with 10 – lifted the Eagles back to the front, and they ran the time off before Juniata Mennonite could foul enough to get another chance.

“We were trying to foul and didn’t get to them,” Lions coach Andy Meiser said. “We probably could have put them on the line a little quicker.”

Opportunity knocked for the Lions in the slow-moving first half, but Sunbury Christian blocked. And rebounded. And stole the ball – although that was one area where Juniata Mennonite seemed to be doing better.

There was no lack of opportunity for the visitors and they took advantage of most of them. But the shots weren’t falling. And the Lions were victims of mechanical errors – at one point, two free throw attempts were waved off for toes on the line.

“There were some mental errors, just some things that added up for us down the stretch,” Meiser said. “Nine turnovers for the game, that’s not bad – but some of the ones we had were critical.”

On the positive side, the Lions’ matchup zone seemed to be a better match for the Eagles, which was crucial against the league’s No. 1 team, which had a noticeably, although not dominant, size advantage.

In a game where defense was the deciding factor – it wasn’t who shot last, but who stopped the last shot – the teams’ familiarity made it harder for either side to act.

“That’s kind of what it came down to. And the last game we played them was a defensive struggle,” Meiser said. “Both teams knew each other pretty well. You can always go back to a play or two … but in the end it’s a collection of stuff that gets you the win.

“From the start of the game to the end of the game, I thought we did some nice things out there. We went man-to-man against them for awhile which we’d have never done last year and it looked pretty good.”

Sunbury Christian led the entire first half, but never by much – a 10-6 edge late in the second was the biggest spread on the scoreboard before the teams went off the court.

And Valarie Meiser erased most of the that advantage on the first 3-pointer she was able to connect on, which swished through to make it 10-9 with 30 seconds left in the half. The Eagles had a shot to stretch the lead again, but Juniata Mennonite still managed the final opportunity, a pair of missed free throws that ended the second quarter.