YATESVILLE — With an instinctive burst, Tara Judge jumped in front of a Delaware Valley pass, snatched it away, and galloped down the floor for a three-point play.
From there, Wyoming Valley West was off and running.
The light-scoring Judge tossed in 10 points, led a frenetic Valley West defense that pressured its way to 12 steals Wednesday and the Spartans set up a showdown with Hazleton Area by destroying Delaware Valley, 51-19 in a District 2 Class 4A girls basketball quarterfinal game at Pittston Area High School.
“We usually don’t press that much,” said Judge, Valley West’s junior point guard. “But we’ve been working on it in practice and decided to give it a shot.”
Valley West shot down a five-game losing streak that brought a sour end to its regular season, and signaled a warning to other teams in the district tournament.
The Spartans can be dangerous, even with two starters missing from the lineup.
Valley West seniors Cheyenne Reese and Cassie Smicherko spent the game in warmup clothes with undisclosed injuries. Reese was left limping when she departed early from the Spartans’ regular season finale against Dallas and didn’t return. Smicherko suffered an injury this past Sunday in a pre-district scrimmage against Lake-Lehman.
“I had confidence the kids would cover for our missing starters,” Valley West coach Paul Appel said. “Of course, I didn’t know we would play this well.”
It was perhaps the most complete performance of the season for the 14-9 Spartans. They got a game-high 12 points from Megan Kane, 10 from Judge, nine more from Cassie’s freshman sister Gabby Smicherko and eight from fellow freshman Erin Gibbons, meshing a balanced offense with their break-neck defense.
“I was a little nervous. But it kind of motivated me,” Judge said of playing without two of the team’s most reliable ballhandlers and shooters. “We wanted them to be able to play again. Hopefully they’ll be back and ready for Friday.”
That’s when Valley West will play a rubber-match game in the district semifinals against Hazleton Area, which drew a bye Wednesday as the bracket’s No. 2 seed. The two teams split their two regular-season games, with Valley West winning the first one by storming back from a double-digit deficit late in the second half.
“They’ve been probably as hot as anybody,” Appel said of the Cougars. “Hopefully, we can cool them down.”
First, though, the Spartans had to catch a little fire themselves.
And Judge provided the perfect spark, igniting Valley West on the game’s opening possession — when she stole the ball, flew down the floor and dropped in a layup that she then turned into a three-point play.
“I think it set a tone,” Judge said.
It sure did.
The Spartans had seven steals in the first half and Judge made three of them. And when Delaware Valley did penetrate the press, imposing Olivia Hoffman was hovering under the basket.
Hoffman, Valley West’s 6-foot-2 senior center, blocked four shots in the game’s first four minutes. She finished with five blocks in the first quarter and seven for the game.
The combination limited the 4-18 Warriors to just four points in each of the first two quarters as Valley West shot out to a 32-16 halftime lead.
Meanwhile, Judge got started on her scoring spree by tossing in five points during the first quarter after averaging little more than four per game for most of the season’s final month. Gibbons and Gabby Smicherko each scored four points in the second quarter as Valley West took command with a 21-8 halftime lead; Kane came through with six points in the third quarter; and Judge’s 3-point goal gave the Spartans a 41-18 advantage in the fourth quarter and sent most of the starters to the bench shortly thereafter.
“Tara’s a true point guard, but has the ability to score when we need her to,” Appel said. “She started to make some shots, led our defense, made steals. She just had a great all-around game.”
Valley West 51, Delaware Valley 19
DELAWARE VALLEY (19) — Anna Chamberlin 0 2-2 2, Alyssa Aragona 1 1-2 3, Nikki Cuccio 2 1-2 5, Erin McNeely 1 0-0 2, Marissa Balcarrell 1 0-0 2, Clare Brennan 1 0-0 2, Hannah Gallagher 1 1-3 3, Madeline Yost 0 0-0 0, Kyra Boccie 0 0-0 0, Natalie Smetana 0 0-0 0, Leah Yost 0 0-0 0. Totals 7 5-9 19.
VALLEY WEST (51) — Erin Gibbons 2 4-4 8, Tara Judge 3 3-5 10, Megan Kane 6 0-0 12, Savannah Piazza 3 0-0 6, Olivia Hoffman 1 0-0 2, Gabby Smicherko 4 0-0 9, Amanda Scarcella 0 0-0 0, Jordan Reilly 0 0-0 0, Lauren Lupinski 1 0-0 2, Colleen Cwalina 1 0-0 2, Arika Bartusek 0 0-0 0, Mackenzie Simoson 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 7-9 51.
Three-point goals — WVW 2 (Judge, Smicherko).