GA sophomore Erin Lindahl (right) drives the baseline against Episcopal’s Maria Kilcullen. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

GA sophomore Erin Lindahl (right) drives the baseline against Episcopal’s Maria Kilcullen. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Coming off a relatively disappointing 2012-2013 regular season, the Germantown Academy girls redeemed themselves by reaching the finals of the Pa. Independent Schools Basketball Tournament. Five seniors, including an NCAA Division I player, graduated from that team, so Patriot supporters were left to wonder how well their 2013-14 ballclub would fare with a roster that featured just one senior and one junior altogether.

As it turned out, the current pack of Patriots exceeded everybody’s expectations – except their own. At the 2014 Indy Schools tournament final four at Malvern Prep last weekend, fourth-seeded GA knocked off defending tournament champ and two-time Inter-Ac League titlist Episcopal Academy in a Friday semifinal (43-31), then led Saturday’s championship game at the end of three periods before succumbing to a fourth-quarter rally by second-seeded Shipley School, which won 40-31.

By finishing as runner-up, this group of GA athletes matched the final achievement of their more experienced predecessors, and in other ways, they exceeded the accomplishments of the 2012-13 squad. They wound up with a better overall record (20-7 vs. 18-11), and they finished second in the Inter-Ac with a 9-3 mark while a year earlier the Patriots placed third at 8-4.

The lone senior on the team, forward Margaret Anne Hubbell (who’s headed to West Point), shared the leadership burden this year with the Patriots’ only junior, sharpshooting guard Olivia Gorman. Hubbell had some thoughts as to why GA was able to surprise the pundits.

“The sophomores, like Kendall Grasela and Erin Lindahl and Lauren Oeth, played a lot as freshmen, so they were pretty experienced sophomores. We played a lot together in the summer and in the fall, so that got the freshmen used to playing with us, too.”

Longtime GA head coach Sherri Retif agreed, “These kids basically did the rebuilding in the offseason, and they were ready to go when the season started. They’re a great group of kids who work very hard, and they developed probably the best chemistry we’ve ever had.”

During the regular season in the Inter-Ac, the Patriots split their series with Episcopal, Penn Charter, and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, and swept the other three league teams. The Pats were missing Grasela and Lindahl when they lost their first Episcopal game (49-43), then they won the rematch (60-43) when EA played without point guard Margaux Paolino. The teams were both at full strength for last Friday’s tournament semifinal, where Episcopal came in as the number one seed.

GA’s veteran mainstays, Hubbell and Gorman, led the Patriots out to a 12-4 lead over the first four minutes. Two strikes from the paint by Hubbell and a “three” and a short jumper by Gorman were supplemented by Lindahl’s three-pointer from the top of the key in that early run.

A trey by Paolino helped revive EA, who tightened the score to 12-9, but seconds before the first-quarter horn Lindahl drove the left baseline to score, making it 14-9.

EA senior Sarah Abbonizio stuck a triple to kick off round two, but that was all the Churchwomen got in this low-scoring segment. Following two made free throws by Hubbell, Oeth (a forward) scored inside off a feed from her classmate Grasela, then Gorman hit a lay-up in transition. The count was now 20-12 with almost three minutes to go until the intermission, but that score stayed on the board until the break.

Although she did not score until the second half, Grasela was having an impact with her ballhandling at point guard and also with her rebounding. The lanky sophomore would accumulate nine boards during the game (matching Hubbell for the team high), as she always seemed to be in position on the weak side to collect the ball off of Episcopal misses.

Although EA junior guard Meghan Pickell came through with two three-pointers and a pair of free throws in the first five minutes, the third quarter was basically a wash, with the Patriots slipping just one point closer to their pursuers, 28-21. Hubbell added six points to her total, and Grasela drove to the hoop to record her two points for the afternoon.

Round four did not open on a positive note, as the Pats began by turning the ball over on a walk and then committing their seventh team foul. Sophomore Dylan Higgins gave EA two points from the stripe, but Hubbell got them back with a converted rebound.

With six minutes remaining, the Churchwomen approached within four points (30-26) with a “three” from the left corner by Abbonizio, but GA then got into the bonus and had freshman guard Abby Starzecky nail down both ends of a one-an-one. Another young Patriot, Lindahl, came up with a steal and lifted the ball up for an unlikely scoop shot that somehow went in.

Oeth then went to the line to make two foul shots as EA’s Abbonizio picked up her fourth personal with just under five minutes left to play. Next, the GA sophomore stole the ball deep in the defensive end, initiating a sequence that ended with Hubbell scoring in transition to cap an 8-0 GA surge.

Now down by an even dozen, the Churchwomen had one last gasp left in them, which was expressed in a “three” by Abbonizio and two free throws by junior Maria Kilcullen. With 3:24 on the clock, EA was back within seven points of the leaders (38-31), but GA soon got into the double bonus. Starzecky hit the first of two shots from the line, then Gorman went four-for-four to complete the final tally.

Hubbell and Gorman produced double-digit totals, with 15 and 11 points, respectively, and rounding out the score were Lindahl, with seven points, Oeth (six rebounds, four steals), with four, Starzecky, with three, Grasela (three assists) with two, and freshman Lilly Bolen, with one. Abbonizio led the Churchwomen with 11 points and Pickell added eight.

Germantown Academy had ruled the Pa. Independent Schools tournament for a number of years, up until the 2011-2012 season. That was a breakout year for Shipley, with the Gators establishing themselves as a premier team in the Philadelphia area and ending up by beating the Patriots in the Indy tournament finals. In 2012-13, it was Episcopal’s turn to have a banner season, as the Churchwomen knocked off Shipley in the tourney semifinals and then won the championship over GA, 56-42.

Long dominant in the Friends Schools League, Shipley appeared determined to take back the Indy title this time around, rolling past third-seeded Penn Charter in Friday’s semifinal round, 54-33 [see separate article].

But as GA’s Hubbell related, “We didn’t think about being underdogs; we just went out and played our hardest.”

Gorman drove in to initiate the scoring in Saturday’s final, then Shipley built a 9-4 advantage that included four points apiece from star guard Tamesha “Sox” Alexander (a senior signed by St. John’s) and 6’4” junior Martine Fortune. After Hubbell hit a free throw, Grasela closed out the first quarter for GA with a three-pointer from the top of the key, bringing the Patriots back within a point, at 9-8.

Junior guard Nia Holland, who would be Shipley’s second-half heroine, completed a three-point first half with a lay-up at the start of the second quarter, then Alexander made two free throws thanks to the third personal foul of the game by Oeth, who retired to the bench and was replaced by Bolen.

The Gators now led 13-8, but they wouldn’t score again before halftime as GA put together its best six minutes of the game. The Patriots vaulted into a 14-13 lead with back-to-back three-pointers by Lindahl and Gorman, then from just inside the three-point loop, Bolen connected from the left baseline. Hubbell stole the ball back and later scored in transition to make it 18-13.

When driving against taller players, Gorman often launches lay-ups using a sort of hook-shot motion to avoid blocks. That’s how she netted the last two points of the period to set the halftime score at 20-13. Shipley had not only gone cold from the field, but had left a possible four points at the free throw line.

Shipley head coach Sean Costello gave GA kudos, noting, “They played really good defense. They pressured us, they were physical, and they took us out of what they wanted to do offensively. They were making us take shots that we weren’t comfortable taking. On offense, they got out on the break a lot early in the game, which we honestly weren’t prepared for. I thought they would play a bit slower.”

GA’s Retif pointed out, “We have a good running game and we were able to run in the first half, but there were a lot of fouls called in the second half and that sort of slowed the game down. Our shots stopped falling; we were two-for-19 from the floor in the second half.”

Given the outside shooting capabilities of Gorman and several other Patriots, Shipley made the switch to man-to-man defense at halftime.

“We played a one-two-two match-up zone the majority of the year,” Costello explained, “and we thought we would be able to pressure them with that and get out on the break. It didn’t work, so we had to go to man-to-man. I said to them at halftime that we’re not in real trouble yet, but we need to get our energy back where it needs to be and improve our shot selection. I told them that if we kept running our offense, we would get the looks.”

Holland, who had 13 of game-high 16 points in the second half, dropped in three lay-ups in the third quarter to lead an 11-6 resurgence for the Gators. GA deposited three of four free throws, and later Gorman drilled a “three” from the keytop. This was enough to provide the Pats with a 26-21 lead with a little over two minutes left in the period, but Shipley’s Alexander hit one of two free throws and then bagged a midrange jumper in the final minute.

When the Gators senior penetrated for a lay-up at the beginning of the fourth quarter, she leveled the score at 26-all. A scoop shot by Grasela that proved to be GA’s last field goal was matched by Shipley’s Courtney Redcross, a strong six-foot sophomore forward. Redcross then committed her fourth personal foul, and Hubbell hooped one two free throws. The Patriots now led for the final time, 29-28, with 6:31 to go.

Within a minute, both Hubbell and Bolen each would be saddled with a fourth personal foul, while a lay-up by Fortune and a free throw by Holland moved the Gators ahead by two. As the clock ticked down to four minutes, Gorman and Grasela each made the first of two free throws to create a 31-31 draw, then Shipley finally went up for good on a pair of foul shots by Holland as GA’s Hubbell departed with her fifth foul.

Soon, Bolen would follow her to the GA bench, while Shipley’s Redcross and Fortune, now alternating most of the time for the Gators, stayed eligible with four fouls apiece.

“We’re fortunate in that we can play without both bigs on the floor at once by just going to a guard-oriented offense,” Costello said. “When we do that, we also tend to attack the basket more, and that got us some foul calls at the end of the game.”

For the fourth quarter, Shipley sank 10 of its 12 free throws, while GA was three-for-nine, including the missed first shot of a one-and-one. While the Patriots struggled from the floor and from the foul line down the stretch, the Gators pulled away for a nine-point victory.

Providing 75 percent of Shipley’s point total were Holland (16) and Alexander (14), while Fortune finished with six and Redcross and sophomore Maya Overton (daughter of former pro Doug Overton) had two points apiece.

Due partly to GA’s defensive efforts, Shipley senior Colleen Walsh, normally a major offensive threat from the perimeter, was held scoreless. By the same token, Shipley was able to limit Hubbell to four points, and largely curtail the Patriots’ outside shooting in the second half. Gorman gave a gritty performance and finished with 13 points, while Grasela turned in seven points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. GA received three points from Lindahl and two each from Oeth and Bolen.

The graduation of Hubbell will be a significant loss for the Patriots, but it will be their only loss. Successful this season with a host of ninth and 10th-graders, GA looks to have a promising future.