GA junior guard Kendall Grasela looks for an avenue to pass the ball into the paint. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

GA junior guard Kendall Grasela looks for an avenue to pass the ball into the paint. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Germantown Academy’s “Inter-Ac title or bust” team bus hit a bump in the road last Friday afternoon. Results over the first half of the season had indicated that two-time defending champion Episcopal Academy would have a tough time retaining the league crown, but last Friday the visiting Churchwomen kept themselves in the thick of the title chase by handing the host GA Patriots their first Inter-Ac loss, 47-36.

Both ball clubs came away with 6-1 records in league play, while overall, EA improved to 12-4 and Germantown slipped to 14-5. The setback was also GA’s first loss to any Pennsylvania opponent; the other L’s in the ledger had come against well-regarded squads from Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, and Virginia.

GA led 18-16 at the half last Friday, then slipped behind early in the third quarter. Three minutes in, the Patriots were just one point behind at 22-23, but over the next six minutes they were outscored by the Churchwomen, 11-3. That made it 36-25 early in the final round, and EA was also ahead by 11 points at the final horn, having led by as many as 14 in between.

A third legitimate contender for the Inter-Ac title, Penn Charter, had conquered visiting Episcopal, 54-40, back on January 9, but on Tuesday of last week, Germantown Academy completed a sweep of its home/away series with the PC Quakers. The Pats won by 20 points both times, and Charter’s aspirations had also been diminished by a third league loss, a final- second setback at Springside Chestnut Hill on January 16.

If the Churchwomen didn’t want to fall into a similar position and have to look for third-party upsets to keep them in the championship hunt, a win at GA last week was vital.
“The math kind of dictated that we had to win if we wanted a clear shot to win the league,” EA head coach Chuck Simmonds concurred.

GA’s Tuesday triumph over Penn Charter had been the 599th victory for head coach Sherri Retif, now in her 17th season piloting the Patriots. An effort had been made to keep her in the dark about the imminent 600-win milestone, but for everyone else in and around the program, it was a poorly-kept secret.

With this element added to the importance of the game itself in the Inter-Ac season narrative, the occasion seemed to become a little overwhelming for the Patriots. Their overall success can make one forget that there’s just one senior on the roster, and that a number of sophomores and freshmen see a lot of playing time.

Through much of Friday’s contest, the Pats appeared jittery and disjointed, while the Churchwomen, seeking an unadorned “W,” came off as more focused and disciplined.

At the outset, GA junior guard Kendall Grasela struck quickly from the three-point line, but EA soon responded with two long-range missiles of its own, thanks to senior Meghan Pickell and junior Margaux Paolino (a national-class field hockey player who has verbally committed to Duke). Later on, a steal and a breakaway lay-up by Pickell sent the Churchwomen into the second quarter with an 11-7 advantage.

Three days earlier, Springside Chestnut Hill had done a good job of containing EA’s best-known offensive weapons, but Pickell, with 16 points, had emerged as the game’s high scorer in a 46-39 victory for the Churchwomen.

After she led Episcopal again on Friday with a game-high 13 points, and Simmonds observed, “She had another good game today; she’s been breaking out of sort of a quiet spell she was in for a little while.”

GA’s senior standout at guard, Olivia Gorman, went to work in the second period, starting out with a triple from the right wing, and then going inside for two more field goals. Half-a-minute before the intermission, junior guard Erin Lindahl dropped in two free throws, and the Patriots filed into the locker room holding an 18-16 edge.

The lead might have been considerably greater if the GA players, as a group, had taken a more fundamental approach to shooting. They worked hard to give themselves a number of good looks, but then instead of finishing these plays in a straightforward fashion, they frequently sent up scoop shots and little twirly numbers that enabled the ball to deftly avoid the cylinder.

GA still came out of the interlude ahead by two points, but as the new half began a converted rebound and two free throws by Pickell bookended a 7-2 Episcopal spurt. The Patriots’ Grasela scored off a steal to get the hosts back within one, 23-22, with 5:10 on the clock. EA junior Dylan Higgins, who’d hit a three-pointer during the early run for the visitors, answered with a pair of free throws.

Maria Kilcullen, a senior bound for Loyola (Md.) University, had only scored three points up to this juncture, but now she came on to help Pickell lead the Churchwomen. First, Kilcullen stole the ball near the top of the key and converted a breakaway lay-up. Germantown was back to a two-point deficit in short order (27-25) when Gorman hoisted a “three” from the left flank, but Kilcullen drove for another lay-up and also bagged a free throw awarded on the play. Then she stole the ball back and dashed down to the hoop once more for a 32-25 Episcopal advantage.

While shooting, EA sophomore forward Elodie Furey drew a foul (GA’s seventh) with three-and-a-half seconds remaining in the third period, making both free throws. Furey accounted for the first points of the fourth quarter, as well, capitalizing on a Pickell pass to score in the paint and put her team up 36-25.

The Pats now gave themselves a chance by doing something they only accomplished once during the afternoon. They scored three consecutive field goals thanks to junior Lauren Oeth, sophomore Abby Starzecky, and Grasela. Back within five, GA might’ve gotten closer after EA’s Paolino missed the first shot of a one-and-one, but, it was the Churchwomen who corralled an important rebound on the play.

The visitors got into the double bonus, and Paolino hit one shot each time on two trips to the line, sandwiching a driving lay-up in between. Episcopal was now up 40-31 with under two minutes on the clock, and the visitors added five more unanswered points to make it 45-31 with 39 ticks to go. All the Patriots could do was scavenge a few points at the end.

In the pivotal third quarter, EA’s Simmonds noted, “We got some stops on defense, and I think one point where things really started to swing our way was in the middle of the period when Maria got some big steals and scored. We’ve struggled at times this season to score the ball, but we’ve worked on defense and that’s kept us in a number of games.”

Kilcullen finished with 11 points and Paolino with 10 for the winners, while Gorman put up a dozen points for GA and Grasela scored 10.