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GARDEN SPOT – Spring-Ford coach Mickey McDaniel described his team with six simple words.

“They’re together five fingers, one fist,” McDaniel said.

For a while the Rams (24-5) weren’t much of a fist in their second round battle against Mechanicsburg (23-7) in the AAAA state tournament. A defensive scrum for three quarters left Spring-Ford scrambling for some sort of success.

But they finally punched through in the fourth quarter, thanks to a seven-point outburst by senior Sammy Stipa, breaking a four-point deficit to down the Wildcats 42-35.

“We needed that spark in some way,” Stipa said.

For three quarters Mechanicsburg had the defending state champs on the ropes. The Rams broke out to a 10-6 lead after one quarter of play, but that was due in large part to some bad breaks around the rim as the Wildcats shot just 2-for-10 in the frame.

The next two quarters – while not a shooting exhibition – were more reminiscent of the Mechanicsburg squad that routinely dominated this season. The District 3 sixth seed regrouped in the second quarter, as five Wildcats scored at least two points to take a 21-18 halftime lead.

“I never doubted the fact that we would be ready to go,” Mechanicsburg coach Clay McAllister said. “I don’t feel like we were intimidated in the least, and that’s no disrespect for them.”

The confidence soared in the final three minutes of the half. A corner 3 by Hannah Brown and consecutive jumpers by Jordan Hertz and Cecily Carl cemented an 11-2 run in the closing minutes.

“Their two big kids inside (Brown and Carl), they’re just tough, tough players,” McDaniel said. “They play physical, they go after you and they rebound well.”

The boxing match continued in the third quarter, with the Wildcats keeping the upper hand. A low-scoring eight minutes of action saw Carl dominate. The junior missed a put-back, but made the ensuing foul shots. Moments later Hertz found her on the wing for a trey. The quarter ended with Carl getting the conventional three-point play in the final seconds to score all eight Wildcats points, pushing the lead to 29-25.

“She’s outstanding,” McAllister said of Carl. “And we have an unselfish team to boot.”

Carl finished with a game-high 15 points and eight rebounds. But outside of her success, the Wildcats struggled offensively.

Both teams played contrasting defensive games, with the Wildcats sporting a half-court zone against Spring-Ford’s constant in-your-face pressure defense.

While Carl nearly hit her season average, Brown and the rest of the team struggled. The constant pressure didn’t allow the perimeter players to feed Brown and Carl inside consistently, part of the reason the Wildcats committed 22 turnovers. Mechanicsburg shot 13-for-33 in the game on top of that.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of teams that played Spring-Ford this year that had 22 turnovers,” McAllister said.

“We definitely did a great job,” Stipa said. “Kudos to all those that guarded (Carl).”

On the flip side, the Wildcats zone held Stipa and Shelby Mueller relatively in check. Both seniors struggled to find open shots throughout the game. But Mechanicsburg did an even better job against their supporting cast, holding the Rams to 16-of-45 from the field and just 18 rebounds. Carl and company hit the glass for 22 boards.

“Their strength negated things we did, our strength negated things they did,” McDaniel said. “So it became a battle of attrition, really, and that’s why we played 11 kids in the first half, trying to keep a lot of our kids fresh.”

It was that strategy – and Stipa’s hot hand – that finally broke the Wildcats.

While McAllister threw out just seven players, Spring-Ford employed 11. In the fourth quarter the fresher legs prevailed, as the Rams shot 7-of-10, led by Stipa’s perfect 3-for-3 that sparked a 7-0 run to recapture the lead for good with four minutes left. The senior dropped two jumpers from the left side, and a trey.

Stipa and company capitalized on three successive Mechanicsburg turnovers on the other end. Seven of their 22 turnovers came in the final frame.

“We had a few empty possession in a row and obviously Stipa’s good,” McAllister said. “She did what she needed to do.”

The loss ends McAllister’s 11th year at the helm of a Wildcats program that returns Carl and Hertz, among others. And after taking the reigning state champions to the brink Tuesday night, there’s plenty for his squad to look forward to.

“If we learn from the three seniors we have and we continue to work and put our time in, it’s a program that can continue to compete at this level,” McAllister.

And maybe next year they’ll be the one delivering the knockout punch.

Email Jake Adams at jadams@cumberlink.com or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520

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