ALLENTOWN – Aimee Oertner was the last player to leave the Northern Lehigh locker room Tuesday night.
She exited with her eyes red from crying and a stray tear, which had somehow escaped a quick wipe of her face, still on her cheek.
Minutes earlier, Oertner's Bulldog basketball career had come to a heartbreaking end. Despite an incredible performance by Northern Lehigh's all-time career scoring leader, her team lost to Pine Grove, 37-33, in the semifinals of the District 11 Class AA tournament.
Oertner did a little bit of everything in her final performance in Bulldog blue. Her stat line included 21 points, nine rebounds and eight blocked shots. She also handled the ball against Pine Grove's fullcourt pressure and served as a constant outlet for her teammates in No. Lehigh's halfcourt offense – and she did all of that while fending off double and triple teams most of the night.
"Oertner is one heck of a player," said Pine Grove coach Chris George. "She is super talented. We tried to play her man-to-man to start the game and that obviously didn't work too well.
"We then played some zone and some box-and-one, and we tried to keep multiple people around her no matter what defense we were playing. As good as she was offensively, though, she impacted the game even more on defense. She blocked a lot of shots and made us change a bunch more."
But Oertner's huge game and a 14-0 Northern Lehigh lead to start the game weren't enough to prevent Pine Grove from finding a way to win.
That's because the Cardinals had a star of their own. Two years younger and almost a foot shorter than the 6-2 Oertner, Pine Grove sophomore Becky Evans scored 23 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter to almost singlehandedly rally her team.
"Give Evans a lot of credit," said Northern Lehigh coach Dave Oertner. "She took over in the fourth quarter. She hit a huge three-pointer to give them the lead and then she just didn't miss from the foul line (6-for-6 in the final minute). We wanted to keep the ball out of her hands, but we just weren't able to do it."
The Bulldogs (12-12) were able to do just about anything and everything they wanted in the game's first quarter.
With Oertner scoring 10 points in just over four minutes, Northern Lehigh torched Pine Grove's man-to-man defense. While the Bulldogs were hitting their first five field goal attempts, the Cardinals were missing eight straight shots and committing six turnovers in the period.
It added up to a 16-3 first quarter lead for Northern Lehigh.
"Not many teams have tried to play us man-to-man this year," said Dave Oertner. "We knew that was Pine Grove's primary defense and we were hoping that they might try to play it against us.
"We did a nice job of attacking it and built a big lead. But we struggled after they switched to zone and although we were still playing well defensively, they began to gradually cut into it."
Pine Grove held the Bulldogs to a total of just six points over the next two quarters, but still trailed. That's because the Cardinals were just 7-for-45 from the floor (16 percent) through the first three quarters.
"It's tough to sit in a zone defense when you are down 14 points," said George. "But we decided late in the first quarter that we had no choice. We couldn't contain Oertner playing man-to-man.
"We kept telling our girls that we had rallied after being down big in a couple of games earlier in the season. But even though our defensive switch did a nice job of keeping us in the game, it was starting to look like it might be one of those nights because for three quarters we just couldn't hit a shot."
Trailing 22-19 to start the final quarter, the Cardinals took their first lead of the night on an Evans jumper that made it 23-22 with 5:11 left. The lead changed hands three more times before an Evans' three-pointer with 3:07 play put Pine Grove ahead to stay.
Leading 28-27, Pine Grove closed out the victory by going 9-for-10 from the foul line in the final 1:27. The Bulldogs pulled to within a basket a couple of times in the final 30 seconds, once on a clutch three-pointer by Tina Bastardi, but both times Evans drained a pair of free throws which eventually sealed the outcome.
"It was a fantastic season," said Dave Oertner. "Prior to the season, I thought we were a long shot just to make Districts and tonight we came within a few points of qualifying for the State Tournament."
Despite the finality of seeing her Bulldog career come to an end, Aimee Oertner also realized how special the season was.
"It hurts a little right now, but I'm so proud of all my teammates," she said. "It was amazing how well our team came together and how much everyone improved this year.
"It's always sad when the season comes to an end, but when I look back, I'm going to have a lot of great memories."
Pine Grove (14-7) advances to play Minersville for the district championship.
Follweiler 1-1-3-3, Hams 0-0-0-0, Bastardi 3-0-0-7, Weil 1-0-0-2, Olewine 0-0-0-0, Oertner 7-7-8-21. TOTALS: 12-8-11-33.
Smith 1-0-0-2, Sampson 2-0-0-4, Thompson 0-2-2-2, Evans 6-9-10-23, Zimmerman 1-1-2-3, Geiger 1-0-0-2, Bertasavage 0-1-2-1. TOTALS: 11-13-16-37.
No. Lehigh 16 4 2 11 - 33
Pine Grove 3 7 9 18 - 37
Three-pointers: NL – Bastardi 1. PG – Evans 2.