By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
MEADVILLE — Depending upon peoples’ perceptions, 31 years can seem like a lifetime ... but so can 16 minutes.
Hickory High girls’ basketball program’s District 10 drought ended Saturday afternoon as perennial power Villa Maria virtually vanished from the 2nd-half scoreboard.
The Lady Hornets erased a 7-point halftime deficit by yielding just 4 second-half points en route to a 39-24 victory over Villa Maria in the District 10 Class AAA championship game.
“ ... I started crying with about thirty seconds to go,” admitted former Head Coach Sally Ward, the Mercer County Hall-of-Famer who led the Lady Hornets to the 1983 D-10 title.
“It’s awesome to try to even step into those shoes,” related 18th-year Lady Hornets’ Head Coach Jeanette Whitehead. “(Ward) set the bar high, and the only District 10 championship came through her.
“We’ve been here a few times, but always the bridesmaid, never the bride. So to be able to come home with it is awesome, and she’s been there with us every step of the way,” Whitehead said of Ward.
“For them to win it after thirty years, and as good as they are — they played every private school in the district — and for Villa to score only four points in the second half, they are absolutely the best Hickory team there ever was,” Ward praised.
That did not appear to be the case during the 1st half as Villa vaulted to a 20-13 margin at intermission. Hickory hit only 3 of 16 floor shots, committed a half-dozen miscues, and was outrebounded 21-13. However Nikki Arbanas’ breakout at the buzzer brought some momentum into Hickory’s halftime locker room.
Following a media timeout with 3:03 remaining to intermission, Morgan Putnam passed to Deja Young, extending the Victors’ lead to 20-13. From that juncture Villa Maria did not score again until 4:22 remained in the 4th frame on Amesha Harden-Pullium’s left-wing jumper. By that time Hickory held a 33-22 edge.
“To me, it still seemed like they were right on our tail, to me it just didn’t seem like that clear of a separation,” Whitehead admitted. “But I could see the confidence, I could see us getting lower (in defensive stances), we started getting the fifty-fifty (loose) balls, and that was the difference.”
Villa Maria (21-3) — ranked 5th in the state according to one media source — did not score during the 3rd quarter, missing its only 5 floor shots while commiting more turnovers (6) than it did during the entire 1st half (5).
During the 2nd half the Victors were vanquished by 1-for-21 shooting while converting half of only 4 free-throw attempts; conversely Hickory hit on 8 of 16 field-goal tries — including 3rd-quarter triples by Brandi Beader and Megan Chess, both of whom were blanked during the 1st half — and 8 of 9 charity tosses.
Ultimately, Arbanas annexed 10-for-10 accuracy from the line and ended with a team-high 14 points and 3 assists; Nicole LaCava lent 10 points, and Holly Grober grabbed a game-high 18 caroms, almost singlehandedly holding Hickory (25-0) to a virtual draw on the boards.
Whitehead assessed, “I thought our one-three-one (defense) was effective, but you can’t sit in a zone when you’re down. We were down and we needed something else to generate some offense and to take the pace away from (Villa Maria).
“At the defensive end, once we settled in, I said, ‘Let them make the mistakes,’ and we started capitalizing on that. That was a big turning point for us,” Whitehead continued, relating, “The girls helped each other out, whether on-ball, help-side, and that was the one thing I said to the girls: ‘Villa moves the ball well — better than any team I’ve seen — and has great spot-up shooters. ... If we stick to the things that got us here — fundamentals like keep your girl in front of you, know who’s in help(side defense), it doesn’t matter what anybody runs; defensively, I think we can get it done.”
Villa Maria finished 10 for 49 from the field (20.4 percent) with a dozen turnovers. Harden-Pullium scored 7 and Nicole Maxson mustered a half-dozen rebounds for Villa’s lone victory — 32-31 on the glass. And though Hickory had only 1 more field goal (11 for 32, 34.3 percent), the Lady Hornets harvested 15-for-18 (83.4 percent) free-throw shooting.
Still undefeated, the newly minted District 10 champions must prepare for the PIAA playoffs, which can be weathered by the Ward-Whitehead bond.
“Actually (Ward) kind’ve predicted it,” Whitehead related. “She said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna be sittin’ there when you guys win District 10,’ and I hope she has some more predictions for me.
“But it’s just an honor and I’m just grateful,” Whitehead added.
“ ... It starts all over, it’s now ‘phase three’ of the season, and we’re just gonna take it one step at a time,” Whitehead forecasted. “Basically, we just want to continue to do the things that we did to get us here.”
Before embarking on an embrace at mid-court with her successor, Ward, when asked if she’s as proud of the 2014 Lady Hornets as her 1983 edition, never hesitated in responding,
“Absolutely, absolutely! Even more.”
DISTRICT 10 CLASS AAA CHAMPIONSHIP
VILLA MARIA 9 11 0 4 24
HICKORY 8 5 16 10 39
VILLA MARIA — Harden-Pullium 2-2-2-7, Morris 1-0-0-2 Mifsud 2-0-0-5, Agnello 1-0-0-2, Young 2-0-1-4, Thompson 1-0-2-2, Putnam 0-0-0-0, Maxson 1-0-0-2. 3-pt. goals: Mifsud1, Harden-Pullium 1. Totals: 10-2-5-23.
HICKORY — Arbanas 2-10-10-14, Chess 2-0-0-5, Grober 3-1-3-7, LaCava 3-4-4-10, Beader 1-0-0-3, Shephard 0-0-0-0. Moore 0-0-0-0, O’Brien 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goals: Chess 1, Beader 1. Totals: 11-13-16-39.