POLAND – Offense is fun for the fans, but defense wins championships and that is exactly what the No. 5 Poland Bulldogs girls basketball team utilized to capture a sectional title over the No. 16 Cardinal Mooney Cardinals Saturday afternoon by a score of 42-34.
With the aggressive defensive play of both teams, the contest was very physical right from the opening tip as both squads had multiple players in foul trouble late. The Cardinals leading scorer with 14 points, Alaina Scavina, eventually fouled out late in the contest.
“We knew this game would help prepare us for what is coming. Mooney plays physically, they play very well, and they are disciplined and well-coached,” Bulldogs coach Nick Blanch said.
With the victory, the Bulldogs improve to 19-4 overall on the season. It also advances them to a regional semifinal contest against West Branch on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs suffered a 4-point loss to the Warriors earlier in the season.
“We are familiar with West Branch since we played each other this season when they beat us by four,” Blanch commented. “That was a good basketball game and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do at Uniontown Lake on Wednesday.”
The Bulldogs’ pressure defense forced the Cardinals into committing nine first-quarter turnovers as they built a 16-8 advantage by the end of the first quarter. But it was two clutch free throws by Poland’s Ariana Daniels with 45-seconds remaining and the Dogs up by just 6, that finally sealed the game for them.
“The start was huge because it was an emotional game because both teams know each other really well. These kids have grown up together, they have played AAU ball together, so there are a lot of friendships and family friends and community members that know each other. So, everyone was a bit jittery for those reasons, so we definitely knew we had to come out and set the tone,” Blanch added.
“It’s hard against a good team and they put a lot of pressure on the ball, and caused a lot of turnovers,” Cardinals coach Dom Diorio remarked about the early deficit. “When you get behind, it’s tough. But we tried and we didn’t quit. I’m super proud of the girls for that.”
The Bulldogs would build a game-high 11-point advantage at the 6:52 mark of the fourth quarter following two free throws by Connie Cougras. But the Cardinals responded with an 8-3 run over the next four minutes of the contest to cut the deficit down to just 6 at 38-28 when Angelina Rotunno knocked down a shot from behind the arc in the left corner.
That is when Daniels coolly converted her two free throws, followed by Farber with two additional charity shots with only 5 seconds remaining to close out the game.
“Ariana (Daniels) is a starter on any other team in the area in my opinion,” Blanch said. “But here, her role is to come off the bench. In that moment she needed to gather herself and knock those down like I knew she could. That was huge.”
Although the Bulldogs never trailed in the contest, the Cardinals never let them separate themselves. After trailing by 8 at the end of the first quarter, the Bulldogs couldn’t build on their lead as they enjoyed a 7-point advantage at halftime 22-15.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park for either team today. We missed a ton of layups. Layups and free throws in the first half killed us. We let a lot of opportunities go. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort,” Blanch said.
The Cardinals would eventually close the deficit down to just 3-points at the 4:15 mark of the third quarter when Sophia Diorio scored a bucket to make it 25-22 in favor of the Bulldogs. The Dogs would respond with a three by Cougras two and half minutes later and would hold a 9-point lead at 33-24 at the end of the third period.
The Cardinals finish their season with a 13-11 overall mark. Despite the season ending, they can enjoy the off-season knowing they won the Steel Valley Conference.
“The effort was never missing with them,” Diorio remarked about his team. “I commend them on that. I never had to question if they were going to bring the effort.”