POTTSVILLE – Jim Thorpe head coach Rob Kovac wasn't just looking for a win, he was also looking for a way...
A way to spend more time together with a group of girls that he has heralded as the best girls basketball team in school history.
On Saturday night at Martz Hall, he got the best of both worlds, as his fifth-seeded Lady Olympians posted a 59-51 victory over fourth-seeded Blue Mountain in the quarterfinal round of the District 11 Class AAA Tournament.
It marks Jim Thorpe's first District playoff victory in 10 years (since a postseason win over Northern Lehigh in 2002) and advances the Olympians to Wednesday's semifinal where they will meet top-seeded Allentown Central Catholic at Catasauqua at 7:30 p.m.
Even more importantly, Saturday's victory guarantees Jim Thorpe at least two more playoff games, as even with a loss to Central Catholic, the Olympians would still advance into Saturday's third-place consolation game for the right to qualify for the PIAA State Tournament.
"This win tonight was absolutely huge for our program, but even more importantly, it's just so special for these kids," stated Kovac. "I'm so fond of this group of girls. I told them before the game that I just wanted to spend another week with them and a win tonight would guarantee that. Now, if we can just manage to win one of the next two games, we'll get to spend even more time together. When a ride's this fun, you just want to stay on as long as you can."
Saturday's game against Blue Mountain was the fourth time this season the two teams have met, with Jim Thorpe posting wins in the last three meetings. Despite the familiarity, the first half was a back-and-forth affair, which featured nine lead changes and no lead larger than four points. At halftime, the Olympians found themselves clinging to a 25-24 lead.
"Our bread and butter all year long has been a 1-3-1 defense, but we played Blue Mountain so many times that they started getting comfortable against it, so we played much more 2-3 zone defense tonight," added Kovac. "(Chelsea) Smelas and (Celeste) Robinson played the second quarter with two fouls each, so while we weren't aggressive and we couldn't play Jim Thorpe basketball, we at least survived and I was thrilled to go into halftime with a lead."
Blue Mountain (17-8) came out hot to start the second half and went on a 7-0 run to take a 31-25 lead. However, Jim Thorpe was able to claw its way back and found itself trailing by just one point (37-36) heading into the final quarter.
That's when Robinson took over. Robinson scored the first five points in the fourth quarter to give the Olympians a 41-37 lead. Robinson scored 14 of her game-high 29 points in the final stanza and hauled in six of her team-leading 12 rebounds over the final eight minutes.
"I've been a head basketball coach for a long time now, and that's the best quarter of basketball I've ever seen a player have," said Kovac. "It wasn't just scoring, it was everything – rebounds, steals, defense, getting to the free throw line. If you're looking for the definition of an All-State basketball player, Celeste just gave it to you in the fourth quarter."
With the game tied at 42 with 4:17 to play, Kristin Lawrence (13 points) buried her third three-pointer of the game to give Jim Thorpe a 45-42 lead, a lead they would never relinquish. Blue Mountain managed to cut the deficit to four points on a Jillian Grapsy trey with 42 seconds left, but fastbreak layups by Robinson and Lawrence in the final 30 seconds sealed the deal.
"When Smelas fouled out with four minutes left in the game, there was a little bit of panic because we become an even smaller team than we already are," said Kovac. "But Lawrence hit some big shots down the stretch, Condly comes off the bench and gives us solid minutes, and Batts was all over the place."
In the final 13 and a half minutes of the game, Blue Mountain was just 2-for-21 from the field.
Jim Thorpe (21-4) held Blue Mountain's leading scorer Shannelle Koch (11.8 ppg) to just two points while Grapsy led the way with 24 points and 10 rebounds.
McElmoyle 2-1-3-7, Batts 0-2-4-2, Lawrence 5-0-0-13, Condly 0-0-0-0, Robinson 9-11-18-29, Mosteller 2-0-0-4, Ennis 0-0-0-0, Smelas 2-0-0-4. TOTALS: 20-14-25-59.
Kerns 2-2-2-6, Koch 1-0-0-2, Grapsy 5-13-16-24, Starr 2-4-5-8, Shpakovsky 0-0-0-0, Schu 5-1-3-11, Foster 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 15-20-26-51.
Jim Thorpe 14 11 11 23 - 59
Blue Mt. 14 10 13 14 - 51
Three-Poiners: JT - Lawrence 3, McElmoyle 2; BM - Grapsy 1.