Down 43-40 with just over two minutes left, Northwestern appeared to have momentum on its side. The Tigers had come back from an 11-point and seemed to had North Schuylkill on its heels.
But the No. 11 seed Lady Spartans cranked up the defense and held No. 6 seed Northwestern scoreless for the final 2:01 of their District 11 Class AAA girls final Wednesday night in New Tripoli.
North Schuylkill hit free throws down the stretch to come away with a 47-40 win and advance to face No. 3 seed Bethlehem Catholic Saturday at Allen.
"We knew this was a do-or-die situation," said Spartan head coach John Rizzo. "We knew they were a good basketball team. We knew they were undefeated at home. I just think we played with a ton of heart."
North Schuylkill led 33-22 with less than a minute left in the third quarter before the Tigers clawed their way back.
A Sarah Segan basket cut the lead to nine at the end of the third. After assisting on an Emma Kemmerer basket to start the fourth quarter, Segan scored again to cut the lead to 33-28. Sara Jones scored Northwestern's next seven points as her three-point play with 4:16 left made it 38-35.
The Spartans' Caitlyn Deeter scored to push the lead back to five points.
Deeter, who had a team-high 21 points, answered each time Northwestern made a run.
"She played her heart out," said Rizzo. "She's a senior. She wanted as much as anybody else in the gym wanted it."
The Tigers' Sabrina Mertz hit a three-pointer to cut it the Spartans' lead to three again. After a Deeter free throw, Jones scored her eighth basket of the game to make it 43-40.
Northwestern (15-9) forced a turnover and got a defensive stop over the next minute of play, but the Tigers couldn't get closer than three.
"We didn't quit," said Northwestern head coach Chris Deutsch. "We battled all night. We just couldn't get that one stop that we needed at the end there.
"I thought we were going to pull it out. We had the momentum and were creating turnovers and getting defensive stops."
North Schuylkill (12-11) sealed the game at the free throw line as Nadya Spotts and Deeter both hit a pair on the final minute.
The Spartans held Northwestern to 27 percent shooting (14 for 51) and forced 18 turnovers.
"They played good defense," said Deutsch. "They're fundamentally sound. Their guards were hitting outside shots. We had to get out of the zone and get into a man."
The Spartans packed the lane and forced Northwetsern to take outside shots. The Tigers tried to loosen up the defense by hitting outside shots, but they made just one of 14 three-point attempts in the game.
"We knew they liked to spread the court," said Rizzo. "We knew they weren't a great outside shooting team. Their bread and butter is getting to the rim. The key was to keep the guards in front of us and box out.
"We knew Jones is a very good player. We had to hope to contain her and not let anybody else hurt us. I don't know what she ended up with, but I know it was a lot."
Jones scored a game-high 23 points, while North Schuylkill's Deeter led her team with 21.
The Tigers end the season after reaching their first district tournament in four years and their first league playoffs since 2007. Although it was only two games, the playoff experience will be valuable to a team that returns four starters despite graduating six seniors.
"Despite this game, our season was success," said Deutsch. "To go from three wins two years ago to seven wins last year to 15 wins this year, I think we've gotten a lot better. I think we can get better yet. We're going to learn from this. This is a good experience for our younger players to get into postseason play. This is something we need to build on."
Deeter 5-8-10-21, Paul 2-0-0-4, Reinoehl 2-1-3-5, Bolinsky 1-0-0-2, Spotts 2-3-4-7, Marone 0-0-0-0, Damiter 2-2-2-8, Semanchik 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 14-14-19-47.
Mertz 1-3-4-6, Landrigan 0-0-1-0, Jones 8-7-8-23, Kemmerer 1-0-0-2, MacLaughlin 0-0-0-0, Cunningham 1-1-4-3, Segan 3-0-0-6. TOTALS: 14-11-17-40.
North Schuylkill 9 12 12 14 – 47
Northwestern 9 7 8 16 – 40
Three-pointers – NS: Deeter 3, Damiter 2; NW: Mertz 1.