by Tom Utescher

A few minutes into the second quarter of last Friday’s Girls Inter-Ac League game, host Penn Charter held a comfortable 24-12 lead over the Academy of Notre Dame, but there would be plenty of anxious moments for the home crowd before the contest reached its conclusion.

Back within seven points by halftime, the visiting Irish trailed by just four (43-39) with a minute-and-a-half left to play, but solid free throw shooting helped the Quakers come away with a 49-42 victory.

Charter received key contributions from across the age spectrum. Center Dianna Thomas-Palmer posted 12 points and 10 rebounds and fellow senior Marykate O’Brien provided eight points, five rebounds, two assists, and two steals. The two eighth-graders who start at guard, Ayanna Matthews and Hannah Fox, furnished 13 and nine points, respectively. Matthews also recorded four rebounds and two assists, and the Quakers received five points from sophomore Christina Kubach and two from senior Danielle Sienko.

In their first meeting this season, the Irish had defeated the Quakers, 59-48, a few days before the holiday break.

“Having seen them once, we were better prepared,” noted PC coach David Bass. “Going into this game, we were determined to make Fitzpatrick and McGurk work for every basket they got.”

Bass was speaking of Notre Dame’s junior guard tandem of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Megan McGurk, proficient perimeter marksmen who netted 36 points between them in the December clash with Charter.

“Fitzpatrick is an outstanding shooter, and she lit us up the last time,” Bass pointed out.

Last Friday Matthews guarded Fitzpatrick much of the evening, and the visiting gunhand finished with six points, netting just one three-pointer. The Irish still had three double-digit scorers to keep them close on the several occasions when PC threatened to pull away. McGurk put up seven of her team-high 11 points after halftime, and Molly Borgese and Kristen Carr added 10 points apiece.

The Irish don’t have a lot of height at forward, but they’re no slouches on the boards.

“Their girls really know how to read the basketball on the rebounds, and they go hard after the ball,” Bass said. “We knew we had to try and match their intensity. Every once in awhile we slacked off, but we were able to come back and regroup in time to keep the lead.”

After the teams were tied 10-10 in the opening minute of the second quarter, PC went ahead for good by reeling off a dozen points in a row.

Thomas-Palmer put in a three-pointer from the top of the key and a pair of lay-ups, while Fox also canned a “three,” and Kubach contributed a lay-up. The sophomore came off the bench after Sienko picked up a pair of first-quarter fouls.

Notre Dame knows how to pressure opponents on their offensive transition, but despite the occasional turnover, the Quakers weathered the storm relatively well.

“The key was to be patient and make sure everyone comes to get the ball,” Bass said. “We used Dee [the 6’1” Thomas-Palmer] a lot to alleviate the pressure, because the girls can find her and she’s a good ballhandler. They trapped us a couple of times, so we still have to get better at handling the ball pressure.”

An exchange of lay-ups made it 24-12 with 2:38 to go in the first half, but Notre Dame whittled away at the lead, scoring the final five points for a 24-17 tally at the interlude. The visitors’ momentum carried over into the second half. Borgese, a 5’10” senior who can use her experience and quickness to outmaneuver bigger players down low, scored twice in the first two minutes and the Quakers found their lead had dwindled to just three points, 24-21.

O’Brien capitalized on a breakaway to revive the home team and the spirits of its fans. Next, the eighth-graders combined in transition, with Fox feeding Matthews for a lay-up. Charter kept rolling until it had put together a four-minute, 10-1 surge. However, as in the previous period, Notre Dame registered the final five points of the quarter. Fitzpatrick’s baseline jumper with eight seconds to go – her first field goal of the game – set the score at 34-27 for the final frame.

Round four began with Borgese cashing in on a rebound to reduce the gap to five points, but then foul trouble began to catch up with the Irish, who already had seven team fouls. Violations eight and nine sent PC’s Thomas-Palmer and O’Brien to the line for two points apiece. Fitzpatrick canned a three-pointer for the visitors, but just after that Thomas-Palmer hit one of two free throws as AND’s Bailey McCue fouled out of the game. PC was back up by seven, 39-32.

McCue was out or action and other forwards for the Irish had foul problems, as well. PC post player Thomas-Palmer did not suffer her first foul call until more than three minutes into the fourth quarter. It was quickly followed by her second, but the only true whistle worries for the hosts involved Sienko, who said sayonara with her fifth foul with 1:07 remaining in the game.

Charter hit 15 of 19 free throws in the second half (netting 13 points in the fourth period alone), while the Irish were six-for-11 over the same 16 minutes.

Nevertheless, as the clock dropped below the two-minute mark a lay-up by Borgese and a productive one-and-one for McGurk had the visitors within four, 43-39. After PC turned the ball over on a 10-second half-court violation, Sienko’s fifth foul gave the Irish another one-and-one, but they came away empty, missing the chance to make it a two-point affair.

Instead, Thomas-Palmer and O’Brien went to the line once again and produced four more PC points. McGurk hit a lay-up for the Irish but the Quakers’ Kubach got one point back from the foul line with 19 seconds to go. After AND missed a three-point attempt from well beyond the arc, Fox also hit one of two free throws for the home team, which now led 49-41 with 10.7 on the ticker.

The final score went up in lights with 2.2 seconds left, as McGurk made her second foul shot on a double-bonus opportunity. So ended another edge-of-your-seat adventure for the Quakers, who are seeing even their youngest players develop into tested varsity performers.

“We knew from the get-go that our schedule was tough, and we’ve been in close games with good teams all season long,” Bass pointed out. “Our young kids are seeing a lot of action, and they’re gaining experience that most players don’t have at their age.”