Honesdale used suffocating defense and red-hot foul shooting in advancing to the Class AAA finals
Stacey Hart is simply the best clutch free throw shooter ever to wear a Honesdale High School girls basketball uniform. Period.
Want some evidence?
How about this:
On Wednesday evening at Valley View, Hart put on an absolute clinic from the charity stripe in the biggest game of the 2014-15 season to date.
Stacey knocked down 12 straight free throws ... many in the waning minutes of regulation ... to lead the Lady Hornets to an electrifying 41-34 win over top-ranked Scranton Prep.
“It might look like I'm really calm, but I'm definitely a little bit nervous too,” a smiling Hart said of her businesslike demeanor at the line.
“I want the ball at the end of the game because I know I can make them. I just try to dribble around until they have to foul me.”
Coach Pilar Beam agreed.
“Stacey is an unbelievable free throw shooter,” she said. “I know if they foul her, she's just going to step up there and knock them down.”
With this victory, the Red & Black advance to the District Two Class AAA championship game for a third time in four years.
The local lasses will face off with North Pocono, who defeated Nanticoke in the other semifinal.
Weather permitting, this year's title tilt is slated for 7 p.m. Saturday night at Carbondale Area.
Katie Miller ignited the Lady Hornets offense in the first quarter.
The sharpshooting senior guard knocked down two early field goals and went 3-for-4 at the line in leading her team to an early 11-7 advantage.
Morgan Birmelin picked up the pace in the second.
Another battle-tested senior guard, Birmelin ran the floor with reckless abandon, scoring six of her eight points in the period and sparking Honesdale to a 21-15 lead at the break.
Morgan also drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Jess Genco most of the night. Prep's top scorer would finish with a game-high 17 points, but every shot she took was fiercely contested.
“Morgan did an excellent job on her,” Coach Beam said. “We all know that Genco is one of the best players in the league, but I'll take our guards over theirs every single time.”
Hart made her presence felt for the first time early in the third quarter.
Stacey stepped to the line twice in the period and drained all four of her attempts. As soon as she hit the last of these, Prep head coach Ross Macciocco called timeout with his girls staring at a 25-15 deficit.
It was at this point that the Classics made a run.
Everyone in the gym knew it was coming and Honesdale fans held their breath in anticipation of the inevitable.
As it turned out, Hart's free throws were the only points her team would muster in the entire third quarter. And, when Clare Philbin dialed up a deep trey midway through the fourth, Prep had its first lead of the night at 33-32.
That didn't last long, though.
Miller knocked down back-to-back treys, Amber Watkins drilled a crucial baseline jumper and then ... well, then the Stacey Hart Free Throw Shooting Clinic began in earnest.
Keys to Victory
Three times Coach Macciocco implored his Classics to foul someone.
Three times they made the mind-boggling mistake of choosing Hart.
Three times Stacey stepped up, ignored the chaos all around her and calmly drained her foul shots. In fact, of the 12 she attempted on this night, only one even grazed the rim on its way through.
“The first thing I do is take a deep breath to help calm my nerves,” Hart said of her pre-shot routine.
“I try to block everything out as much as I can. I know I can make a foul shot, so I just focus on the basket. Once I get comfortable, they just seem to keep going in.”
While free throw shooting was one of the key's to this huge win, rebounding was undeniably another. And, who better to provide that physical presence in the paint than senior Natasha Hessling?
Honesdale's fiery power forward dominated the low post on this particular night, hauling down a game-best 13 rebounds.
She also made Prep's guards think twice before venturing into the lane. Genco and Philbin chose to snipe away from the perimeter rather than risk Hessling's wrath.
“I'm so happy for Tasha,” Coach Beam said. “She had to miss most of last season with that knee injury and I know it was killing her not to be out there.
“She played an awesome game tonight ... there's no other way to say it. She was awesome.”
When Honesdale and North Pocono meet again, it will be the third time they've played this season.
The Lady Trojans won the first two encounters, but
“I'm definitely confident that we can beat them,” said Hart. “We've had a couple of close games with them and if we stick together I know we can win.”
Coach Beam concurred.
“North Pocono is a very good team and Kaitlyn Lewis is one of the best players around,” she said.
“But, if contain her a little bit ... if we go out there and play our game ... then we'll be fine.”
Score by Quarters...
HON (21-4) 11 10 4 16 - 41
PRE (22-2) 7 8 6 13 - 34