BERWICK — They broke through a vaunted press defense, limited shots and wrestled back control of the game after it briefly got away from them.
But the Wyoming Valley West Spartans needed the help of a Kane to make it back to the district title game.
While Hazleton Area swarmed around center Olivia Hoffman, Megan Kane snuck by to score a game-high 14 points - including a game-clinching three point play — and Valley West upended the Cougars, 45-42 in a District 2 Class 4A girls basketball semifinal at Berwick High School.
“We knew it pretty much came down to this game,” Kane said.
In a do-or-die effort, Valley West’s hopes lived.
The third-seeded Spartans, who lost to Wallenpaupack in the final seconds of last year’s district title game, will get a rematch with Wallenpaupack in next Friday’s district final. Hazleton, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, finished its season at 16-7.
“I think it makes us want it even more, because we lost by so close last year,” Kane said.
The Spartans weren’t about to lose out on a chance to make up for that.
Cassie Smicherko popped a 3-point shot, Tara Judge scored four points and Valley West stormed out of the gates with the game’s first nine points.
The Spartans punished Hazleton Area’s normally-punishing press defense with quick passes and a few long, cross-court lobs to keep turnovers to a minimum. They burned Hazleton Area by using a significant height advantage inside, leaning on Kane and the return of injured Cheyenne Reese for paint position and drives from Judge to soften the Cougars’ sagging inside defense.
And in doing so, the fired-up Spartans hardly resembled the team that lost by double digits to Hazleton at the end of the regular season and needed a last-gasp fourth quarter rally to overcome a double-digit deficit the first time the teams met.
“We knew we’d have to give 110 percent today just to get the win,” Valley West coach Paul Appel said. “I thought we gave over that.”
Try as they might, though, the Spartans couldn’t put Hazleton Area away.
They held leads of 11-5 at the end of the first quarter and 21-17 at halftime, using a 1-3-1 defense that dared the Cougars to beat them from the outside.
“They came out in a big 1-3-1,” Hazleton Area coach Joe Gavio said.
But the Cougars nearly chopped it down to size at the start of the second half.
Becky Marchetti and Alyssa Sitch both drilled a pair of 3-pointers, and Sitch’s second of the third quarter gave the Cougars a 29-23 lead three minutes into the half.
“You really can’t give them an inch, or they’re going to make the shot,” said Appel, whose team improved to 15-8 overall. “We switched from our zone to a man (defense).”
It worked. Valley West closed within 33-31 by the end of the third quarter, then grabbed a 41-39 lead when Gabby Smicherko came off the bench to drive the lane for a layup with 2:36 to play.
Almost two minutes later, Kane crashed her way to the basket, dropped in a layup, and hit the ensuing foul shot to give the Spartans a 44-39 lead.
“We broke the pressure really well and we got the ball up the floor — together,” Kane said. “We were all just prepared. My team helped pass the ball around to get quick shots.”
Christie Kaschak hit a bucket to close the gap to 45-42 with 14 seconds on the clock, and the Cougars stole an inbounds pass and took a shot to tie with time running down. It missed, Gabby Smicherko grabbed the rebound, and Valley West was in the title game again.
“Tough one,” Gavio said. “Typical Valley West-Hazleton Area game. We came out in the second half and punched them in the mouth. To their credit, they took the hit and made some plays.”
Valley West 45, Hazleton Area 42
VALLEY WEST (45) — Tara Judge 5 0-0 10, Cassie Smicherko 2 0-2 5, Cheyenne Reese 3 2-2 8, Megan Kane 6 2-3 14, Oliva Hoffman 1 2-4 4, Savannah Piazza 0 1-2 1, Erin Gibbons 0 0-0 0, Gabby Smicherko 1 1-2 3. Totals 18 8-15 45.
HAZLETON AREA (42) — Mackenzie Yori 3 0-0 8, Becky Marchetti 5 0-0 12, Lexi Wolk 2 2-4 6, Brianna Woznicki 1 0-0 2, Alyssa Sitch 3 1-2 10, Christie Kaschak 2 0-0 4, Angie Marchetti 0 0-0 0. Totals 16 3-6 42.
Three-point goals — WVW 1 (C. Smicherko); HAZ 7 (Sitch 3, Yori 2, B. Marchetti 2).