North Allegheny took sole possession of first place of Class AAAA Section 3 with a win against Shaler Area on Jan. 9.
The Tigers did that in a way that would be expected from a veteran team with six players returning who saw starting varsity minutes last year.
Playing on the road against an undefeated Shaler team, North Allegheny battled back from a four-point deficit with 1:33 left in regulation to force overtime on a last-second shot. Then in overtime the Tigers fell behind by two, only to close the game on a 13-2 run and win, 66-57.
“All section games are important, but obviously with the fact that they were undefeated and playing very well and having to go [to Shaler], that made it more challenging,” Tigers coach Sherri McConnell said. “We had to come from behind in the end. I thought for us to have to play in that situation, on the road, it was good for us. We have a long way to go in section play though.”
North Allegheny has come a long way this season already.
The Tigers are 13-1 overall and 8-0 in section play heading into Friday night’s home game against Butler Area.
North Allegheny hosted a tipoff tournament to open the season where it defeated Chartiers Valley but sustained its lone loss of the season so far to Mt. Lebanon, 60-58, in the tournament championship game.
They went on to pick up non-section wins against Moon Area, Norwin, Canon-McMillan and South Park and have swept their first eight section games. North Allegheny opened the New Year with a five-point section win against Pine-Richland before defeating Shaler in overtime and it hasn’t looked back.
“These games have showed we have a lot of character as far as never getting down and discouraged,” McConnell said. “I think the little bit of experience we gained last year has shown. When things have gotten tough, they have attacked it together.
“In years past maybe we felt like we had to do it by ourselves, individually. This year they have done a nice job of sticking together and relying on their defense to get us going and get us to be successful in those situations.”
The Tigers graduated only one starter from last season’s team, point guard Maddie Nellis. In her place moves 5-foot-9 sophomore Abby Gonzales. The transition was not an easy one for Gonzales, last year’s leading scorer, but she has made it look easy.
After leading the team in scoring as a freshman, Gonzales is now leading the Tigers in assists, with 6.1 per game to go with her 8.6 points per game scoring average .
“She has really done a nice job of distributing the ball,” McConnell said. “She is a leader on the floor. She is just doing a great job of understanding the tempo and really playing great. It is not an easy thing to do as a high school kid to sacrifice points, but she has done a great job of being mature and understanding her role and what the team needs.”
Gonzales can still score when needed, she hit the game-tying basket with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime at Shaler.
Taylor Brennan, a 5-5 senior guard, is a three-year starter for North Allegheny averaging 12.1 points per game
“It has really been fun to watch her mature this year as an all-around player,” McConnell said. “She has always been a scorer, now she is making some great passes and she has a great handle on the ball.”
Meg Morningstar, a 6-2 junior forward, came off the bench to score a game-high 24 points against Shaler.
“She was a huge spark for us,” McConnell said. “She creates some mismatch problems because we play her at guard a decent amount. She has been good with understanding the mismatches.”
Devvin LaBarge, a 5-8 junior guard, leads the team in scoring, averaging 12.6 points per game.
The front court has been a strength for the Tigers with Morningstar rotating into the post along with 5-11 senior Danielle Wall and 5-10 sophomore Taylor Lake, who rotate in starting roles. Sammie Dallier, a 5-10 sophomore, is one of the first forwards off the bench while 5-6 senior guard Sarah Clogan and 5-9 freshman guard/forward Haley Zeise also see significant playing time.
“Our focus this year was trying to develop the inside game,” McConnell said. “We wanted to let the outside develop based on what they do inside.”
The Tigers are scheduled to host Seneca Valley Thursday night in a section contest.