by Tom Utescher
The girls of Penn Charter authored an impressive body of work during the 2019-2020 basketball campaign, but the Quakers would just as soon forget about the games that served as bookends to their season annals.
PC both began and ended its season with losses to Abington Friends School.
In early December, the AFS Kangaroos made 13 three-pointers to down the Quakers, 66-61. The teams met again in the season swansong for both schools, appearing last Saturday evening in the Pa. Independent Schools tournament finals.
This time, Abington earned most of its points in the paint, and netted 19 from the free throw line. Owning a one-point edge at the end of the first quarter, the Kangaroos steadily increased their lead until the gap between the teams reached 15 points early in the fourth quarter.
In a furious late rally, Charter got back within five (62-57) with just over a minute to go. The Quakers now had to put AFS on the foul line, where Abington acquired its final three points. One last lay-up by Penn Charter still left the Kangaroos with a 65-59 victory and the 2020 PAIS tournament title. Neither team had won the championship before.
It was also the first appearance in the finals for the Quakers, who closed out their season with an overall record of 25-4.
Commenting on the championship game, Penn Charter head coach Joe Maguire pointed out “We scored 59 points, and we still missed a ton of shots we normally make. Our four losses this season all came against Abington and GA, and they’re teams with a number of similarities. They each have two dynamic guards, and then a lot of length and size inside which makes it tough driving to the basket. They’re exactly the type of teams that give us problems.”
Penn Charter had gone 10-2 in Inter-Ac League competition, losing only to Germantown Academy. Meanwhile, in the Friends Schools League championship tournament, Abington Friends lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Westtown School. AFS then avenged that loss by defeating fourth-seeded Westtown in the PAIS quarterfinals, 47-41.
Seeded second for the tournament, Penn Charter, had whipped number 10 Baldwin School in the quarterfinals, 70-28. In the semifinals last Friday, the Quakers conquered third-seeded Notre Dame for a third time this winter, 70-61.
The top seed for the PAIS tourney had been Germantown Academy, which had rolled through the Inter-Ac League at 12-0. The Patriots had played most of their games without Harvard-bound senior standout Elle Stauffer, who had knee surgery during the season. Injuries really began to mount for the Pats in the postseason.
In a 61-42 win over eighth-seeded Episcopal Academy in a February 15 quarterfinal, GA saw starting senior forward Caitlyn Priore go down after colliding with an EA player. She was later diagnosed with a knee sprain in the same joint that had received ACL surgery a year earlier.
Molly Oeth, a six-foot senior who had been coming off the bench, was sidelined by a nagging ankle injury, and also missing for the PAIS semifinals was starting center Becca Booth, a 6’2″ junior.
Even the deep GA squad could not compensate for this spate of injuries, and the depleted Patriots ended their season with a 63-42 loss to an AFS team that was peaking at exactly the right time. Fifth-seeded Abington, however, lost a player due to injury during this contest; sixth-man Aniyah Hayward, a sophomore guard, would not be able to play in the finals.
“They don’t use a lot of players in general,” PC’s Maguire said, “but to their credit, they’re able to do that because they’re very well-conditioned.”
In Saturday’s championship game, a rush of adrenaline on both sides produced missed shots and turnovers in the first two minutes. Scoring inside and mixing in a “three,” Abington then jumped out to an 8-0 lead. A long three-pointer from the left corner by freshman Kelsey Bess launched Penn Charter, and senior Kait Carter quickly followed up with a drive down the lane.
The Kanagroos were up by five going into the final minute of the opening period, then PC freshman forward Bella Toomey scored off a spin move inside. Charter got another chance when Bess stole the ball back, and her pass to Carter led to a lay-up, getting the Quakers back within one (11-10) for the start of round two.
Another PC steal, this one by senior Carmen Williams, set up another Carter breakaway bucket to kick off the second quarter, but then four different AFS players powered a 9-2 run for the ‘Roos. This created a six-point gap, and that was the difference at halftime, as well, with the tally 29-23. Abington could’ve increased its lead in the final seconds of the half, but came away with no points on a two-shot foul and a one-and-one.
AFS forward Zaniyyah Ross-Barnes posted 11 points in the first half as she seemed to be able to penetrate to the hoop almost at will.
Familiar with the Abington Friends junior, PC’s Maguire said “Her improvement from last season to this season is impressive. I’m going to point out to my girls how much better she made herself by working hard in the off-season.”
A determined Penn Charter group whittled down the AFS lead over the first five minutes of the third quarter. Williams scored inside and then knocked down a “three,” Carter deposited two lay-ups, and Bess made good on a drive for the Quakers. When Carter scored again on a runner, time-out was called with 2:53 remaining in the quarter and the teams just three points apart at 39-36.
Once the action resumed, AFS responded to the Charter threat with a key 12-0 run that extended into the first 30 seconds of the fourth quarter. Freshman guard Ty’Lah Washington went five-for-six from the free throw line during this surge, and the Kangaroos would be in the foul bonus the rest of the way.
Still in the first minute of the fourth quarter, freshman guard Aleah Snead halted Penn Charter’s slide by sticking a short jumper and a free throw that came with it. Snead, who piled up 13 of her 14 points in the fourth frame, continued to help PC trim back the lead gradually, but time started to work against the Quakers. As the clock dropped under two minutes, they were still down by 10 points, 62-52.
Williams scored in transition, PC called time-out, and then Bess scored from the paint to make it a six-point game. Carter cut it to five (62-57) by making the first of two free throws with 1:04 on the clock. Next the Quakers sent the Kangaroos’ Washington to the foul line three times, and although she only netted three points on these trips to the stripe, PC couldn’t score at the other end.
Hitting a runner with under 10 seconds left, Carter made it a six-point final at 65-59.
She led all Penn Charter scorers with 17 points, closely followed by Williams, with 16, and Snead with 14. Bess scored seven points and junior Kaitlyn Hnatkowsky and Toomey added three and two points, respectively. Ross-Barnes led the winners with 20 points, while Washington wound up with 18 and Hodges scored 15 points in the championship game.
Looking past the disappointing outcome of their final game, the Quakers can look back on a number of accomplishments in the 2019-2020 campaign.
They broke last year’s school record for season wins, raising the figure from 23 to 25, and they claimed second place outright in the Inter-Ac instead of sharing that spot as they had a year earlier. Penn Charter also made its deepest run ever into the Indy Schools tournament.
There’s a lot of talk that a shot clock will be introduced in Inter-Ac League competition next year. The Friends Schools League began using a 35-second clock in the 2018-2019 season, and most of this year’s PAIS tournament games employed a 30-second clock, including Saturday’s final.
PC’s Maguire supports the change in his league.
“We probably played with a shot clock 10 times this year,” he said, referencing appearances by the team in out-of-state tournaments where the clock was standard. “We just emphasized pushing the ball and getting into our sets quickly. There’s a league meeting in March, and I think they’ll decide to put in a shot clock for next season.”