CATASAUQUA – Trista Cunningham grabbed the game's final rebound as the buzzer sounded. It was her game-high 11th of the night.
It seemed fitting the Northwestern junior center should have the game ball. She led a balanced scoring effort with a career-high 16 points in her team's 48-43 Colonial League semifinal win over Notre Dame (Green Pond).
"It wasn't just me," she said. "It was the whole team. Sara Jones gave me so many assists."
Top-seeded Northwestern (22-1) moves on to Friday's title game to face No. 2 seed Southern Lehigh. The Spartans beat Bangor, 56-51, in last night's other semifinal.
Cunningham came through with nine points and eight rebounds during a tight second half. With front-court mate Kaleen Suter on the bench with four fouls for most of the third quarter, the 5-foot-9 Cunningham made her presence felt under the basket.
"She's not the tallest girl out there, but she had a big game for us," said Northwestern head coach Chris Deutsch. "She didn't play the first time against Notre Dame. She was a big difference tonight."
The Tigers had a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Crusaders pulled within a basket on a Gabby Altmire basket with 2:55 left in the game.
Three Sara Jones free throws pushed the lead back up to five, but Notre Dame's Lexi McGivern (16 points) sank a three-pointer with 47 seconds remaining, cutting the lead to 45-43.
Sara Jones sealed the win by making three of four free throws down the stretch. The senior made five of six free throws in the final 1:02.
Northwestern fielded all of its starting five players for the first time in three weeks as sophomore guard Sarah Segan missed some time with a knee injury. She scored 10 points in her first game back, one of four Tigers with eight or more points.
Jones scored 12 points while dishing out five assists and pulling down eight rebounds.
Sabrina Mertz had eight points, including the first two baskets of the second half.
The Tigers let an early 13-0 lead dwindle during the first quarter and trailed 24-23 heading into halftime.
Northwestern, which saw all five starters score at least one field goal in the first quarter, only relinquished its lead briefly.
Notre Dame (18-5) went ahead by a point with two seconds left in the first half. Mertz put her team back in front for good 55 seconds into the second half. Her three-pointer less than minute later made it 28-24 with 6:55 left in the third quarter.
"At halftime we were a little down," said Segan. "But we needed to keep our heads up and win this one."
The Crusaders, which have two weeks off before their District 11 Class AA semifinal game, gave the Tigers ther best effort in three tries this season.
"I give our kids a lot of credit," said Crusader head coach Josh Kopp. "Our seniors really wanted this game. I'm just disappointed for them. I think this team is good enough to win a Colonial League championship but tonight Northwestern was just better than us."
The Tigers expect a fierce effort from Southern Lehigh on Friday night. In their only meeting this season, the Northwestern overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to beat the Spartans, 72-65.
"Southern Lehigh is a two-time defending league champ," said Deutsch. "We're going to try to not let them win that third one. We're going to have to play well because Southern Lehigh is playing as well as anyone else in the league the last few weeks."
Hohl 0-0-0-0, McGivern 5-3-4-16, Romich 0-0-0-0, S. Cabone 0-0-0-0, Altmire 2-0-0-4, Moran 4-6-9-15, Gorman 0-0-0-0, L. Cabone 3-0-2-6, McMullan 0-2-2-2. TOTALS: 14-11-17-43.
Mertz 3-1-2-8, Landrigan 0-0-0-0, Jones 3-6-8-12, Suter 1-0-0-2, Segan 3-3-4-10, Bennett 0-0-0-0, Shupp 0-0-0-0, Thomas 0-0-0-0, Cunningham 7-2-3-16. TOTALS: 17-12-17-48.
Notre Dame 11 13 6 13 – 43
Northwestern 16 7 10 15 – 48
Three-pointers: ND – McGivern 3, Moran 1; NW – Mertz 1, Segan 1.