WILKES-BARRE TWP. — With all the adversity the Abington Heights girls basketball team has faced the past few years, a 2-7 start to the season wasn’t going to prevent the Lady Comets from achieving their goal.
Senior center Alessia Brunori made several plays down the stretch in the District 2 Class 5A championship game March 4 to ensure that would be the case.
First, she converted two baskets, including a contested shot from just above the foul line, to give the Lady Comets a 30-27 lead with 1:24 left in the fourth quarter.
“I knew I had to be really confident,” Brunori said. “If I got the ball there, I knew my job was to shoot.”
She also made a critical block in the final seconds to help sixth-seeded Abington Heights defeat top seed Wyoming Valley West, 32-30, at Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, and claim their second-consecutive district title.
“We just had to stay together mentally and physically on defense,” Brunori said. “It was an amazing feeling, as a senior, to come back and do this as a team.”
Senior Olivia Baker missed the final six games of last season after undergoing a surgical procedure to remove a malignant growth from her jawline and senior Mackenzie Machell has been battling an undiagnosed neurological condition for the past two years.
Junior forward Cassie Ksiazek, who scored 250 points last year, suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the summer and senior guard Nicole Getz is playing with a torn ACL.
Before the start of the season, the team adopted the slogan, “Rise Together.”
“We went through a lot of trouble last year with my illness and one of our teammates, Mackenzie, is also ill,” Baker said. “It was about coming back and rising back up to where we where. We wanted it so bad and we’re all such good friends which makes these moments so great.”
Abington Heights scored the first eight points of the game behind two 3-pointers from Grace Evans and a corner jump shot from Baker, and led 10-8 at the end of the first quarter.
“My shot hasn’t really been on, but my coaches kept my confidence up by telling me to keep shooting,” Evans said.
Valley West answered with back-to-back baskets from Andi Blaski before Baker knocked down another shot. Erin Gibbons, who scored a game-high 13 points for the Lady Spartans, ended the quarter with a free throw and 3-pointer.
“We got in a rut for a while where we weren’t scoring, so those baskets really helped us,” Baker said. “It means the world to me because last year I had to watch the game from the sidelines. Although it was really exciting, it felt so much better to be on the court and to score those points for my team.”
Valley West (20-5) outscored Abington Heights, 5-4, in a low-scoring second quarter.
Abington Heights started the third with a 7-2 run and took a 21-15 lead with 2:36 left in the quarter after a 3-pointer from Getz.
Gibbons followed with a 3-pointer and Gabriela Smicherko scored a layup off a steal to end the quarter and cut the Lady Spartans deficit to one point.
Abington Heights guard Hannah Kowalski scored five of her team-high nine points, including a 3-pointer off an assist from Brunori in the fourth quarter.
“She’s our engine and she directs the offense,” Abington Heights head coach Deanna Klingman said. “She pushes the tempo of the game and is so unselfish.”
Smicherko scored to pull Valley West within one with 18.6 seconds left, but the Lady Spartans were unable to convert during their final possession and Evans made one of two free throws with less than a second remaining in the game.
Abington Heights (14-11), the District 2 champion, will play New Oxford (21-8), the sixth-place team from District 3, in the first round of the PIAA Class 5A playoffs at 4 p.m. March 11 at Marywood University.