South Xtra: Seton-LaSalle girls refuse to panic, rally to claim Class AA title

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With 5 minutes, 27 seconds remaining in the girls PIAA Class AA championship game this past Friday at Hershey's Giant Center and his team trailing Neumann-Goretti, 46-44, Seton-LaSalle girls basketball coach Spencer Stefko called a timeout.

Before he even said a word to the team, Stefko said the issue of the team's resolve was already addressed by the team itself.

"One of the players -- it was either Nicolete [Newman]or Cassidy [Walsh] -- said 'Look, there's forever left in this game. We're going to be fine,'" Stefko recalled as his team relished the 58-50 victory over the Saints.

The victory capped a 27-4 season for the Rebels, and it was their second state championship in three seasons.

Right after the timeout, the Rebels tied the game at 46 on a pair of free throws by Naje Gibson. Moments later, Gibson fed a wide-open Walsh with a pretty pass that resulted in a layup to give the Rebels a lead they would never relinquish against the Philadelphia Catholic school.

"That was a schoolyard play," Stefko said of the tie-breaking basket. "Cassidy saw the space that she had, and Naje handled the pass. That was the story of this game: whether it was offense or defense, our kids were making plays."

After the Rebels increased their lead to four points, the Saints were forced to foul. Walsh and Newman were the Saints' two targets, and both of them converted the Rebels' final 10 free-throw attempts of the afternoon. Newman made six, Walsh made the other four.

"Those two have had ice water [in their veins] in the big games," he said. "It goes back to when those two played at St. Gabriel's [in Whitehall]. Those two are something like 150-10 going all the way back to fourth grade. Now, they've won two WPIAL titles and two state titles. They are good, unselfish players."

Something else was evident in the Rebels' effort in the championship game and that was their tenacious defensive effort, particularly on the perimeter.

"We held them to 5 for 30 on 3-point goals," he said. "That goes to a drill we had in practice called the 'Blood Drill' where we forced our players to defend the 3-point line in practice. We forced them to defend that shot, and they weren't always guarding their assigned player. In practice, the kids wanted to know if today was a 'Blood Day' because they really like that drill, and it was one where all 13 players were involved."

Stefko said it's not often where the best player on the floor scores just 10 points, but when that player is Yacine Diop, and she pulls down 23 rebounds, it's easy to understand his sentiments.

"What struck me is that she wasn't getting boxed out and that's because she got better at doing [avoiding being boxed out]as the season went on," he said. "During practices, her teammates would get after her, and the would try to box her out."

The Rebels have plenty of players returning, but Stefko hopes the returnees embody the traits of humility and intensity displayed by both Diop and Gibson, both of whom are going to play for Seton-LaSalle graduate Suzie McConnell-Serio at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Those two didn't care who scored," he said. "It's going to be a challenge to find the players who will have those traits, and that's going to be important if we're going to be successful."

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