BETHLEHEM It has certainly been a long time coming for the Northwestern girls' basketball team and head coach Chris Deutsch.
Last season, the Tigers found themselves in the Colonial League championship game, only to come up short to the eventual-champion Southern Lehigh. In 2012, Northwestern's run in the league tournament came to a halt against the Spartans in the semifinals.
On Saturday night, the two teams would meet once again in the conference championship. This time the Tigers would have other plans in mind.
After the No. 2 seeded Spartans erased a 10-point deficit at halftime to tie it at 34-34 early in the fourth quarter, top-seeded Northwestern put together a champion-type run to end the game. The Tigers scored 14 of the final 18 points to dethrone the three-time defending champion Spartans and capture their first Colonial League title since 2007 with a 48-38 victory on Saturday night at Freedom High School.
"We proved that we could beat them in the regular season," Trista Cunningham said. "Now tonight, we've really shown that we are and can be the better team. It feels amazing."
Cunningham, who was recently named a Colonial League First Team All Star, had a big part in the Tigers' pivotal fourth quarter run.
Following consecutive Southern Lehigh buckets to tie it at 34 with 6:08 to play, Cunningham responded with a three-point play to push the Tigers' lead back to three. Madelene McDonald who had a game-high 14 points brought the Spartans back to within one with 4:45 remaining, but Cunningham proceeded to hit five of her next six free throws to put Northwestern ahead 42-36 with 1:26 to play.
"What I think we needed to keep going was our mentality about the game," Cunningham said. "We really picked that up a notch in the second half. That's really what we needed to focus on."
Cunningham added a layup in transition with 23 seconds to play that put the Tigers ahead by eight. All 12 of her points came after halftime, and she scored 10 of the Tigers' 16 in the fourth.
"I thought we made the big plays in the fourth quarter," Deutsch said. "I thought we hit the big foul shots when we had to. I thought Trista Cunningham took over in that fourth quarter. She showed what a senior leader is all about."
The Tigers (23-1 overall; 15-1 in Colonial League) could not have possibly imagined a better start to the game.
Southern Lehigh hit its first two fields goals, and the teams were tied 5-5 early on. But the Tigers' defense held the Spartans without another field goal until the third quarter, a stretch of nearly 15 scoreless minutes of game time. Southern Lehigh missed 20 straight field goals heading into half and had two third-quarter points.
Sarah Segan who scored 12 points got the Tigers' offense rolling early on, scoring six of the team's nine first-quarter points.
"It was really good considering that we usually come out slow," Cunningham said. "Especially in the regular season, that's what we've been doing. We had a really good start, but we went in at halftime saying that it's not over and they can come back, which they did."
After missing their last 20 field goals in the first half, the Spartans (18-6 overall; 15-1 in Colonial League) made their first three of the third, a quarter in which Southern Lehigh outscored Northwestern 21-13. Melann Amory hit four three-pointers and scored all 12 of her points in the third, while McDonald added 10 of her own in the stanza.
"When they came back from our double-digit lead, we definitely realized we need to play hard, which was our goal from the start" Cunningham said. "But I'm glad we could actually do it, and we kept it at the end."
Deutsch has been a part of this before. Now in his 11th season at Northwestern, he led the Tigers to back-to-back league titles in 2006 and 2007. For this group of players, however, they had yet to reach that level of success until Saturday night.
"The thing I'm happy for tonight is all these players and all these assistant coaches," Deutsch said. "I'm so happy for everybody else. I'll enjoy it, but to see the laughter, the joy [and] the smiles on their faces tonight, it was worth it."
Cerciello 0-0-0-0, Amory 4-0-0-12, Jurgens 0-0-0-0, Saraceno 0-2-4-2, Cyr 0-0-0-0, Campbell 3-2-2-10, McDonald 6-2-2-14, Prince 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 13-6-8-38
Mertz 1-6-8-9, Landrigan 1-2-2-5, Day 1-0-0-2, Segan 5-2-2-12, Bennett 0-0-0-0, Thomas 3-2-3-8, Cunningham 3-6-11-12. TOTALS: 14-18-26-48
So. Lehigh 7 2 21 8 - 38
Northwestern 9 10 13 16 - 48
Three-pointers: SL – Amory 4, Campbell 2; NW – Mertz 1, Landrigan 1