POTTSVILLE — Harrisburg’s swarming defense caused problems for Abington Heights from start to finish.
The Lady Cougars forced 17 turnovers, including a steal on the opening possession followed by a 10-second violation in the backcourt, and defeated the Lady Comets, 55-34, in a PIAA Class 5A second round girls basketball game March 15 at Martz Hall.
The two teams previously met Dec. 8 in the season-opener, a 47-37 Harrisburg win, but Abington Heights (19-8) was still a little startled by the Lady Cougars’ pressure.
“We knew they were going to be really athletic and really strong on defense,” Abington Heights senior guard Hannah Kowalski said. “Even knowing that, I think they came out even harder than we expected. That’s not the type of play we’re used to, so it was definitely difficult to get settled. We fought really hard, but it didn’t go our way.”
Harrisburg junior forward Dajahnae Brannon, who finished with 18 points, scored six and had four steals in the first quarter to help the Lady Cougars take a 20-10 lead.
Brannon scored consecutive baskets off steals to put Harrisburg (25-4) ahead, 13-5, and senior guard Ahmya Woodyard, who had a game-high 19 points and seven assists, scored five in the quarter for the Lady Cougars.
Abington Heights senior forward Cassie Ksiazek scored five points, including a 3-pointer, and Kowalski added four of her team-high 11 points in the first.
“We tried to get pumped up and come out strong, but we weren’t making all of our shots and layups,” Ksiazek said. “That’s basketball and it happens … we just tried to work off each other and stay confident.”
Brannon scored the first four points of the second quarter, but Abington Heights stormed back with seven straight and trailed, 24-17, midway through the second quarter.
Ksiazek, who finished with seven points, left the game with 3:42 left in the second quarter, and didn’t return, after hitting her head on the court during a battle for a loose ball with Harrisburg’s Jazmin Wright.
Lady Comets sophomore guard Maria Tully, who finished with five points and three assists, scored four in the second quarter, but Abington Heights trailed by nine at the half.
Abington Heights managed just four points in the third quarter and Brannon continued to dominate in the paint as Harrisburg pushed its lead to 14.
“Their size was definitely an issue, especially without Cassie, but Erin (Albright) stepped up and toughed it out, and Maria Terrinoni came in and played big defense,” Kowalski said. “I’m really proud of what everyone was able to do.”
Lady Comets senior guard Sharon Houlihan scored seven points in the second half, including five straight in the fourth quarter to bring Abington Heights within 11 with 4:38 left to play.
Abington Heights’ players stopped to visit Ksiazek in the trainer’s room prior to the start of the third quarter and Houlihan played inspired basketball in the second half.
“It was very devastating,” Houlihan said of Ksiazek’s injury. “I told her at halftime, ‘Cassie I’m doing this for you.’ Our little motto is family and we are a family on and off the court. We really love and respect each other.”
Abington Heights won a third consecutive District 2 championship and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“It was such a great ride,” Kowalski said. “We’re all really close and we had a lot of confidence in each other. I don’t think many people thought we be able to make it this far, so it means a lot.”
Abington Heights head coach Deanna Klingman also implored her team to focus on the positives.
“I told them we have everything to be proud of,” she said. “We had a terrific season and they’re a really close-knit team, and that makes it a lot of fun.
“This senior class is leaving with three gold medals … that’s pretty impressive.”
The Lady Comets return five players who saw significant time on the court during the team’s playoff run, leaving Klingman excited about next season.
“I think getting the experience of playing at Mohegan Sun, winning a state game and playing at Martz Hall is going to help in the long run for the underclassmen,” she said.
Reach Robert Tomkavage at 570-704-3941 or on Twitter @rtomkavage.