by Tom Utescher
Surviving a late rally by defending PIAA state champion Upper Dublin High School to claim a 52-48 victory last Saturday afternoon, the girls of Germantown Academy won Upper Dublin’s Cardinal Classic tournament to finish out the 2018 portion of the season with a record of 10-0.
The Patriots rolled past North Penn High School in Friday’s semifinals, 69-25. In the championship game, GA led Upper Dublin by 14 points early in the fourth quarter, but had to fend off a Cardinal comeback down the stretch to emerge with a four-point win. Senior shooting guard Rachel Balzer was named tournament MVP, having recorded a total of 30 points with eight three-point field goals in the two games.
“It’s not easy when you get to be 9-0, 10-0, because you’ve got a target on your back,” said Germantown Academy head coach Sherri Retif. “I’m proud of these kids, they showed a lot of character. The other team came back and had some momentum, but we kept our heads up. Though we made a couple of turnovers, when it really got to crunch time we kept our composure and took care of the ball.”
Including the Cardinal Classic games, eight of GA’s 10 wins thus far have come in tournaments and showcases, including the Inter-Ac/Friends League Challenge in November and then GA’s own December Classic and Make-A-Wish events. In other games, the Pats knocked off Archbishop Carroll, 59-41, and won their Inter-Ac opener at the Academy of Notre Dame, 60-41.
Balzer, who has signed with George Mason University, had the hot hand right from the get-go last Friday night. After a drive by junior Elle Stauffer got the scoreboard moving with almost two-and-a-half minutes gone, Balzer funneled in four three-pointers and one shorter jumper. She accounted for 14 of GA’s points in a 21-2 opening quarter against North Penn.
Stauffer picked up her third personal foul midway through the second period, but two baskets from the paint by sophomore center Becca Booth and a layup by junior Maddie Burns had already given GA a 27-2 lead before North Penn (3-3 overall) scored its second field goal of the game.
The Patriots led 35-8 at halftime, when Balzer had already stamped 17 points in the scorebook. Junior Jaye Haynes targeted a three-pointer from the left wing to start off the second half, which is when she would ring up nine of her 11 points in the game. Stauffer, keeping her foul situation under control, put up eight of her 10 after halftime.
Balzer netted one more trey for a total of six and a game-high 20 points. Junior point guard Maddie Vizza (six assists) scored six points in the contest, as did Booth and junior guard Lindsay Putnam (two treys), while GA got five points apiece from Burns and sophomore Jessica Moore.
The rebounds were also well-distributed: six each for Booth and Burns, and five apiece for Moore and Stauffer. Val McGriff led North Penn with 10 points.
As Saturday’s championship contest got underway, it was clear that each team’s defense was intent on containing the primary offensive threat posed by the opposition. At halftime, GA’s Balzer and 6’3” Upper Dublin junior Jackie Vargas each had a modest total of five points in the book.
Cardinals sophomore Dayna Balasa had tossed in three treys up to this point, but GA led 30-22 at the break with Haynes and Stauffer scoring seven and six points, respectively.
Balzer did not score in the opening period, but the Patriots earned a 13-8 lead by the end of the quarter with balanced offense. Haynes, Vizza and Moore each netted a “three,” with Burns adding a baseline jumper and Booth hitting a layup off of a precise pass from junior guard Sarah DiLello.
“It was hard because they were all sagging and forcing us to take outside shots,” Coach Retif commented. “When we did get to the basket, Vargas made a big impact on the inside for them.”
Upper Dublin had entered the game with a 6-1 record, its only loss coming at Archbishop Wood, 57-34. GA’s Retif checked out the Cardinals twice, but both times in lopsided contests.
“It wasn’t a great scout, because you couldn’t really tell much from those types of games,” she related.
In the early minutes of the second period, GA had Haynes and Stauffer strike from beyond the arc, while UD answered with treys by Balasa and fellow sophomore Jess Polin. When Balzer went in along the left baseline and scored a runner for her first points of the game, the Cardinals called time out, trailing 22-16 with 2:28 left in the half.
As play resumed, Stauffer made a layup and a free throw awarded on the play. That gave GA the largest lead of the half (25-16), but Upper Dublin fought back to within five points of the leaders with just under seven seconds remaining. Balzer made her first three-pointer of the afternoon at an opportune time, receiving a pass from Vizza and sticking a buzzer-beater from just above the top of the key.
Starting the new half down by eight, the Cardinals got two quick baskets from the paint by junior Kara Grebe to tighten the score to 30-26. Three-balls sent up by Balzer, Vizza and Haynes helped the Patriots gain a little more separation. Up by 13 approaching the last minute of the third round, they then committed the classic error of fouling a three-point shooter without even affecting her shot.
UD’s Polin made the trey and her free throw, too, but as in the previous two quarters’ GA would have the last word. Taking a feed from Vizza, Stauffer sped beneath the basket and put in a reverse layup with nine seconds left. Upper Dublin could not get off a shot at the end, and it was 43-32 for the start of the fourth frame.
While the Cardinals were focusing more defensive attention on other outside shooters, GA’s diminutive Vizza slipped in a trey in three different quarters.
“She hit some three-pointers at good times to help open things up for us,” Retif remarked.
The junior’s third triple came from the right wing at the start of the fourth quarter, creating the largest divide of the night between the teams at 46-32. Before long, though, that shot was matched by UD’s Polin, and it proved to be the start of a 12-2 run for the tourney hosts that took the clock down close to the final minute.
The lone GA points in this stretch came from Booth off of a Stauffer pass. This was a straightforward scoring sequence, but on some other occasions GA players tried to force their way to the basket and then put up awkward, high-risk shots. This, along with some errant passes by the Pats, gave Upper Dublin more possessions than it might otherwise have had.
The Cardinals would know what to do with them. Their popular head coach, Morgan Funsten, is a math teacher at Upper Dublin, and he formulated plays from the set offense that were carefully executed by his charges.
Vargas, who made two field goals during the home team’s rally, sank one of two shots from the free throw line with 1:42 on the clock, making it a seven-point affair at 48-41. That foul was Booth’s fourth personal and the seventh for the GA team.
On their next trip up the court, the Patriots turned the ball over, and at the other end Balasa lobbed in a trey from the left flank, closing up the score to 48-44 with 1:12 remaining.
When play began again after a GA timeout, Booth cut in the paint to receive a pass from Vizza and score. With 27.4 ticks to go, the Cards were back within four as Grebe garnered both points in a one-and-one gambit at the free throw line.
While this was GA’s eighth team foul, Upper Dublin still only had two, which now became a problem for the Cardinals. If they couldn’t steal the ball from the Patriots quickly, they’d have to foul to stop the clock. The Cards committed their third infraction with 20.9 seconds left, and as the process went on the Patriots kept their cool and kept the ball.
The clock had dropped to 10.5 seconds by the time a seventh team foul sent GA’s Balzer to the line. She made both shots to put her team up by six points, and at the buzzer Upper Dublin’s Grebe deposited a baseline jumper to set the final margin at four.
Balzer and Haynes (five rebounds) led the winners with 10 points apiece, with Vizza (six assists) adding nine and Booth and Stauffer each logging eight points and eight rebounds. Four points from Burns and three from Moore rounded out GA’s total. Balasa and Vargas each scored a dozen points for Upper Dublin, which received 11 apiece from Grebe and Polin.
In a few days, the Patriots would be leaving for the Allstate Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans. Retif, a native of that city and a member of the Tulane University Athletics Hall of Fame, has a general knowledge of the top teams that will be there, if not of this year’s crop of individual players. The GA staff will have a little time for scouting since the Patriots were awarded a bye for the opening round of the tournament.