EXETER — In need of a hero, or two, Wyoming Valley West found several Wednesday night, escaping a ferocious comeback by Hazleton Area to advance to the District 2 Class 4A championship with a 41-39 victory.
“It wasn’t pretty. Both teams were a little rusty,” Valley West coach Paul Appel said. “But both teams played really hard. We just got the last shot.”
There was Cassie Smicherko, who made the game-winning points from the free-throw line with 30 seconds remaining. After missing a free throw with six seconds to play, she raced down the court and pulled down the rebound of the Cougars’ final shot.
Limited to six points, center Olivia Hoffman was a decisive factor in the final minutes. She had a stickback with 1:43 to play that sprouted a 39-35 Spartans’ lead. After Hazleton Area tied the game at 39, the Cougars had the ball and spread the floor.
Probing the Spartans defense, Hazleton Area’s Alyssa Sitch drove toward the basket. Hoffman blocked the potential lead-changing shot and snared the carom.
“We were looking to hold the ball, but we always say that if you’re feeling it, you’ve got to take the shot,” Hazleton Area coach Joe Gavio said.
Hoffman finished with 10 rebounds and five blocks.
“The block and the rebound and the shot,” Appel said of Hoffman. “She came through in the end, when we really needed her. She played some good defense.”
Guard Tara Judge tied a career-high with 12 points for the Spartans, 10 during a sluggish first half where both teams showed the rust of a two-week layoff.
“Tara had the best game I’ve ever seen her play,” Appel said. “She distributed the ball well. She did everything well.”
Cheyenne Reese had 11 points and 12 rebounds for Valley West as well.
Hazleton Area trailed by seven with less than six minutes remaining before challenging for a spot in the district final. Alyssa Sitch made a free throw and a pair of jumpers from the right wing to cut the deficit to 35-33. Lexi Wolk, who had 12 rebounds and four steals, made a stickback to knot the game at 35 with 3:20 remaining.
“They threw that big zone at us that we had to shoot over,” Gavio said. “We didn’t really get going until into the third quarter, the fourth quarter.
After Hoffman made it a two-possession game, the Cougars drew even again. Wolk made a 16-foot jumper and Mackenzie Yori had one of her four steals and drew a foul. She made two from the line to make it 39-all with 1:24 to play.
No. 3 seed Hazleton Area, which had lost twice during the season to Valley West 50-34 in January and 43-37 earlier this month, ends its season at 13-10. Keanna Schoennagle scored 11 points in the first half to keep the Cougars in the game after Hazleton Area struggled through a 1-for-12 first quarter.
“Keanna had a great game,” Gavio said. “As a senior who wasn’t starting, it’s easy to just let things go. But it’s a testament to her that when we needed her, she came in and made big plays. That’s leadership.”
With the win, the No. 2 seed Spartans (14-9) advance to face No. 1 seed Wallenpaupack, a 58-38 winner over Scranton in the other semifinal. The district title game is set for 8 p.m. Friday at Lackawanna College.
Sitch paced Hazleton Area with 13 points.
Wyoming Valley West 41, Hazleton Area 39
WYOMING VALLEY WEST (41): Tara Judge 5 2-2 12, Cassie Smicherko 3 2-8 8, Cheyenne Reese 4 3-5 11, Megan Kane 1 1-2 4, Olivia Hoffman 3 0-0 6, Savannah Piazza 0 0-0 0, Lauren Lupinski 0 0-0 0. TOTALS 17 8-17 41.
HAZLETON AREA (39): Mackenzie Yori 1 2-2 4, Keanna Schoennagle 4 0-0 11, Lexi Wolk 4 0-0 9, Alyssa Sitch 4 3-6 13, Brianna Woznicki 0 2-4 2, Juliet Courtney 0 0-0 0, Angie Marchetti 0 0-0 0. TOTALS 13 7-12 39
Score by quarters: WVyoming Valley West - 10, 16, 7, 8
Hazleton Area - 5, 16, 5, 13
Threes: WVW - 0, HAZ - 6 (Schoennagle 3, Sitch 2, Wolk)