By Matt Popchock

Thomas Jefferson center Ashley Stoner, one of the premier forwards in the WPIAL, was determined to make Senior Night one to remember.  It certainly was…for about sixteen minutes, anyway.

The only starter to score double figures, Stoner carried the Jaguars (7-3, 14-7) with 26 points and 12 rebounds, but sophomore guard Shelby Lindsay and her teammates found their form, as she scored 11 of her 18 points in the second half to lead Post-Gazette Class AAA No. 2 South Park past TJ 50-45 at Thomas Jefferson High School Thursday.

This gave the young Eagles (9-1, 17-3), a team dressing only one senior, the outright championship of Section 4, while locking their arch-rivals into second place.

“It’s indescribable,” said Lindsay, the team’s overall scoring leader, who also contributed nine rebounds to South Park’s seventh straight victory.  “We’ve worked hard for this, and there isn’t a player on this team who’s not excited right now.”

“They’re growing up before our eyes, and it’s really good to see,” head coach Reggie Wells said of his team.  “We weren’t that mentally tough going into this season, but [tonight] we didn’t let things bother us to the point where we completely shut down.”

Neither early shooting woes, nor an unfriendly environment deterred the fourth-ranked offense in the classification, which did something it normally doesn’t have to: grinding out a victory.

“In the playoffs, when you’re up against more experienced teams, you can’t get frustrated when things don’t go your way,” Wells said.  “That frustration is something we were able to overcome this evening.”

“Every single person kept fighting even when we felt we were losing touch,” Lindsay said.  “Plus, we picked up our defense, and that created more opportunities for our offense.”

Things looked like they would go the Eagles’ way when they embarked on a quick 6-0 run en route to an early 9-6 advantage.  Kaitlyn Piscatelli, that aforementioned lone senior, hit a three-pointer, and junior guard Ashley Mikelonis, who ended the night with 16 points, drained two of her eventual four threes.

That’s when Stoner, the No. 3 scorer in the district at 20.6 points per game, and the Jaguars’ defense, the least scored-upon unit in its section, took matters into their own hands.  TJ bounced back and took a 15-12 lead into the second quarter, thanks to her ten points and three boards–a good game for the average high school cager.  Thomas Jefferson spread the ball around a little more in the second and took advantage of South Park turnovers to mount a 25-17 lead in the closing seconds of the half, holding the Eagles to two field goals.

One of those buckets, however, stood out in the long run.  Lindsay took a loose ball near midcourt, converted an and-one layup, and made her free throw with no time on the clock.  South Park still trailed 25-20 at the break, but her hustle seemed to set a tone for the Eagles the rest of the way.

Although Stoner continued to make her presence felt at both ends, South Park finally rallied.  A 35-26 deficit was erased with a 10-0 run, as Mikelonis hit another pair of threes, and Lindsay’s driving layup gave the Eagles a 36-35 edge.  Stoner got a lot of defensive help from fellow senior Tori Peifer, who snagged 11 rebounds, but they had a tough time withstanding South Park’s balance, while the rest of TJ’s offense faded into the background.  Suddenly, the Eagles had raced out to a 41-35 lead at the end of the third quarter.

“We’ve always been a team that, even if everything is going wrong, finds a way to come back and do its best.  We didn’t go into the locker room feeling down.  We came out for the second half saying we’ve been working for this game all season.  We wanted it,” Lindsay said.

The Jaguars clawed to within 46-45 with one minute left in a very physical, foul-happy fourth quarter, but Stoner missed a difficult fadeaway jumper off an inbounds play that would’ve given them the lead, and another leaning layup by Lindsay effectively gave her and her team the title.

“We’re speechless…there’s just no way to describe how I feel right now.”

For coverage of the WPIAL Girls’ Basketball Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports later this week!