BETHLEHEM – Teams that are 9-3 at the midpoint of the season usually don't need a turning point. But Southern Lehigh's loss to Northwestern back in early January served as just that.
It motivated the Spartans to play better defense and led them to Friday night's Colonial League championship game, where they got revenge on the Lady Tigers with a 62-57 win and earned their third straight league title.
"We talked about that since the day we walked out of that locker room," said Southern Lehigh head coach Megan Dellegrotti. "We talked about how we learned from that. Sometimes losing like that helps a team. It's one of the best lessons you can learn."
In that first meeting, the Spartans let an 18-point third quarter lead slip away. In Friday night's title game at Freedom High School, Southern Lehigh took its biggest lead of the game into halftime, 34-26. This time the Spartans closed out the game and kept the Tigers from making a second-half rally.
"We just had to prove we could play defense and win in a tough atmosphere," said junior forward Madalene McDonald, who scored a team-high 18 points. "That's what good teams are made of. They're not going to get knocked down if they get punched once."
The Tigers (22-2) never trailed by more than the eight-point halftime deficit. They spent the second half cutting the lead down to two or three points then watching the Spartans get a basket or two to push it back to five or six.
Foul trouble plagued both teams, but more so Northwestern, which had four players with three fouls by late in the third quarter and saw three starters foul out of the game. The teams combined to shoot 68 foul shots with Southern Lehigh taking 41 of them.
"The referees did not decide the game," said Northwestern head coach Chris Deutsch. "They called it both ways."
Northwestern got within four points of the lead a few times in the fourth quarter, but the Spartans made 14 of 20 foul shots over the final 3:29 to hold them off.
"We lost it on the foul line," said Deutsch. "They got to the foul line way too many times. Having three starters foul out did not help us."
Senior Kaleen Suter got her fifth foul with just over three minutes left in the game and the Tigers down 52-44.
Sara Jones scored a game-high 21 points before fouling out with 1:48 left. Her three-pointer seconds earlier cut the Spartan lead to four points.
Sabrina Mertz also fouled out in the final minute.
Northwestern battled hard but couldn't overcome that early deficit.
The game was back and forth in the through most of the first half. Southern Lehigh (21-3) led from the start, but the Tigers pulled even a few times in the first quarter and took the lead twice in the second period.
Tied 26-26 with 3:54 left in the first half, Southern Lehigh scored the last eight points of the quarter to pull ahead at half.
"The problem we had was stopping them transition-wise," said Deutsch. "They were pushing the ball up the floor in the first half and we weren't getting back."
Northwestern, the top seed in the league tournament after going 15-1 in the regular season, moves on to the District 11 Class AAA playoffs, where it will likely face North Schuylkill in the first round. The Tigers started the season 20-0 but have now lost two of their last four games.
The Spartans, who went 14-2 in the league this year, move on as the No. 1 seed in D-11 Class AAA tournament. The two teams could meet again in the district semifinals.
Amory 3-0-2-8, Yext 1-5-8-7, Saraceno 1-0-0-1, Cyr 0-1-2-1, Campbell 4-8-9-16, McDonald 3-12-18-18, Prince 4-2-2-10. TOTALS: 16-28-41-62.
Mertz 2-5-6-10, Landrigan 0-0-0-0, Jones 7-6-6-21, Suter 2-1-4-5, Segan 4-4-7-12, Bennett 0-0-0-0, Thomas 0-2-2-2, Cunningham 3-1-2-7, Anderson 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 18-19-27-57.
So. Lehigh 17 17 8 20 – 62
Northwestern 17 9 12 19 – 57
Three-pointers: SL – Amory 2. NW – Mertz 1, Jones 1.