There were many moments a fan of the Shaler Area High girls basketball team could point to that could have meant a change in the outcome of Friday night's 31-29 loss to Chartiers Valley in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAAA girls basketball tournament at North Hills High School.
Chartiers Valley, which is in its first year in Class AAAA and finished third in Section 4-AAAA, improved to 17-6 overall. The Colts meet section rival Upper St. Clair on Friday night in the quarterfinals. Shaler, which finished in fourth place in Section 3-AAAA, concluded it season with an overall record of 11-12.
There were some missed layups. Fourteen turnovers in the second and third quarters. And a grand total of two points in the second and third quarters when the Titans saw a 10-5 lead after the first quarter dissolve into a 24-12 deficit heading into the fourth quarter.
But that's when the Titans defense stepped up wonderfully, forcing six Chartiers Valley turnovers. And when Liz Kline hit two free throws with 23.4 seconds remaining, to tie the score at 29-29 to culminate a 17-5 run, the decidedly improbable had turned into the possible.
But that's as close as the Titans would get as Mariah Wells, Chartiers Valley's senior standout guard, sank two free throws with 19.5 seconds remaining, and the Colts would provide just enough defense to preserve the two-point victory.
Shaler Area's first-year coach Neal Martin was understandably proud of his team's fourth-quarter comeback.
"In a playoff setting you have a game plan, but (sometimes) you find yourself backed into a corner and you have to try different things," he said. "We played uptempo and pressed a lot this season, and I knew we could do it (in the fourth quarter). Our kids were confident, and they suggested it."
After Wells sank two free throws with 6:28 left in the game to give Chartiers Valley a 26-12 lead, the Titans went on an 10-0 run that featured plenty of pressing defense and several steals. Courtney Bauer's stickback with 2:27 cut the deficit to four points at 26-22, and it became a two-point game at 26-24 when Carly Harris executed a midcourt steal and went into for a layup with 2:02 left in the game.
"I didn't want to get into a full-court sprint game with Char Valley for four quarters," Martin added. "But the timing of what we did was right. It was an adjustment, and that's what the playoffs are about. Tempo and adjustment. It kind of caught them off-guard, and it allowed us to come back and we made some plays down the stretch."
Bauer was the game's leading scorer with 12 points in her final game as a Titan. She graduates along with two reserve players, Marissa Bens and Casey Bardsley. But there will be nine players returning, and that gives Martin plenty of hope for next season.
"We'll be better off from what we learned this year," he said. "(Making the playoffs) was a testament to these kids. They could have easily mailed it in. It's encouraging and positive (to have many players returning). We'll get them into the gym after the sting goes away a little bit and just get better."