Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
VILLANOVA —- As the final buzzer sounded in Academy of Notre Dame’s gymnasium, the Penn Charter players piled onto the court for what could best be described as a half-celebration. There was a quick conglomeration of players near midcourt, bouncing together in joy, but it didn’t last long; there were smiles as the players headed to the bench, but only so wide.
The job isn’t over for a program seeking its first Inter-Ac title since well before any of its current roster was born. But Tuesday’s game against Notre Dame was the biggest obstacle left in the way.
The Quakers’ 49-39 win over the Leprechauns puts Joe Maguire’s squad oh-so-close to breaking a 24-year drought in the Inter-Ac, after coming oh-so-close each of the last few years.
“It’s definitely super-exciting,” senior guard Maddie Shoup said. “This was definitely our biggest competition, our biggest step in winning the Inter-Ac.”
Maddie Shoup (above, left) is the only senior in the Penn Charter lineup, but the Quakers are in the drivers' seat in the Inter-Ac. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Penn Charter finished second two years ago, when they went 25-4 and also finished as runner-ups in the PAISAA tournament; tied with Notre Dame last year, though there was no championship determined, nobody playing a full 12-game league slate.
Now, they’re just three games away. Tuesday’s win lifted Penn Charter to 14-4 overall but more importantly 8-1 in league play, breaking a tie with Notre Dame (13-4, 6-2) and staying ahead of Germantown Academy (11-6, 5-2), its only loss of the season.
The Quakers finish with games against Baldwin (3-8, 2-3), Agnes Irwin (1-10, 0-7) and Episcopal (9-6, 2-4), perhaps the only one of the three with a realistic chance of ruining Penn Charter’s title. Their three previous results against those teams: 54-21 over Baldwin, 41-13 over Agnes Irwin and 47-32 over EA.
Maguire knows enough not to celebrate too early.
“Not yet,” he said. “And we’ve proved that already, that we have to finish the job this time, for good.”
The 7th-year head coach was referring not just to an earlier loss to Germantown Academy, which helped his squad in the form of a reality check, but to the slew of close calls his program has experienced over the years.
“The one year we were 25-4, we finished second in the Inter-Ac, we finished second in the state championship,” he said. “Last year, we thought we were the best team with them, and that was taken away from us.
“We’ve got to finish these last three games. But we’re in a better position now than we were two hours ago.”
Penn Charter, which won the prior meeting between the two teams, 59-45 at Penn Charter on Jan. 19, put its foot down early on Notre Dame’s home court. A pair of first-quarter 3-pointers by talented junior guard Aleah Snead and three buckets from classmate Bella Toomey helped the visitors out to a 19-8 lead in the first quarter, and the Quakers never relinquished the advantage.
Notre Dame found momentum in the second quarter thanks to junior forward Katie Halligan, who had seven points in the frame as the Leprechauns cut the gap to 25-20 heading into the break. It seemed like the turn to the fourth quarter might be the closing burst for Lauren Power’s squad, when freshman Sophie Hall came up with a steal and layup just ahead of the third-quarter buzzer, taking away a possession that could have pushed the Penn Charter lead into double digits and left it at 35-29 with eight minutes to play.
Kaylinn Bethea (above) hit a clutch 3-pointer with less than three minutes left. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The advantage was still six with under three minutes to play when the Quakers finally laid the finishing blow. Freshman guard Kaylinn Bethea hit the game’s biggest shot, a step-back 3-pointer from the right wing with the shot clock ticking down, putting PC up 42-33 with 2:33 remaining.
“I know she has that in her, and she had some rough moments, at times, but she trusted herself,” Maguire said. That’s the work ethic [...] she’s made that shot 100 times before. So that’s her trusting herself, and her teammates trusting her, too. That was huge, that she had the confidence in herself to do that.”
Bethea said the magnitude of the shot didn’t dawn on her until after it went through: “Then when I looked up at a clock, I was like, we’re good — we’re up by a decent amount of points, we have the win in the bag.”
To ensure that was the case, Toomey finished off a 16-point night (with eight rebounds) with a driving layup to make it a 44-33 point game, before a Bethea put-back reverse layup made it 46-35 with 1:20 left, the last of her 12 points; she also added 11 rebounds and a trio of assists.
It wasn’t long before the Quakers were able to exhale — at least, partly.
“It’s really exciting,” said Shoup, a Division I lacrosse recruit to the University of Colorado. “Being on the team as a freshman, just watching every team come so close, just not able to really get it; it’s so exciting that this year, we can finally really get it. Every girl on our team is taking part, it’s just exciting.”
Shoup finished with nine points and four assists, coming up with key driving layups in both the third and fourth quarters to give the Quakers a jolt when they needed it. The only senior in Penn Charter’s starting lineup, she and her sister, junior guard Gracie Shoup (four points) both played key defense on Notre Dame’s DePaul-bound senior star, Maeve McErlane.
“She’s a gamer, Maddie,” Maguire said. “Throwback kid: all-Inter Ac soccer, Division I lacrosse player [...] she’ll be all-Inter Ac for lacrosse, should be all-Inter Ac basketball, she’s a gamer.
“You know what you’re going to get from her. Like her sister, they’re just smart, they’re tough, and they’re just athletes who as the season gets going, they just get better and better and better as the season goes along.”
Maeve McErlane (above, right) had 15 points on 22 shots as the Penn Charter defense locked down. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
McErlane led Notre Dame with 15 points, but the sharpshooter was 6-of-22 from the floor, the Penn Charter defense forcing her into tough takes at the end of shot clocks — when they weren’t forcing one of 17 Notre Dame turnovers.
The Quakers had their own turnover problems, with 19, but went 20-of-49 (40.8%) from the floor while holding Notre Dame to 16-of-57 (28.1%) overall.
“We wanted to win the rebound battles, the toughness, the loose balls,” Maguire said. “We knew we needed going into this game that their role players feed off of that stuff, and we wanted to make sure we shut it down for them, and we wanted to be the ones getting those loose balls, making those hustle plays.”
With Notre Dame in the rearview mirror, Maguire and the Quakers have just 10 more days, three key games, to raise a girls’ basketball banner in the new Graham Athletics Center for the first time.
“The other day, we left to go play at Episcopal and we walked through the banners, and there isn’t a girls’ basketball one up there,” Maguire said. “I pointed to them, I said that’s up there forever. And that’s the stuff we haven’t shied away from that. We want to win the league, that’s been our goal all year.”
Win all three, and they can celebrate again, no half-measures.
Penn Charter: 19 | 6 | 10 | 14 || 49
Notre Dame: 8 | 12 | 9 | 10 || 39
Penn Charter: 20-49 FG (3-9 3PT), 6-10 FT
Notre Dame: 16-57 FG (4-20 3PT), 3-5 FT
Penn Charter: Bella Toomey 16, Kaylinn Bethea 12, Maddie Shoup 9, Aleah Snead 6, Gracie Shoup 4, Kayla Bradby 2
Notre Dame: Maeve McErlane 15, Katei Halligan 9, Julia Dever 5, Annie Greek 4, Scarlett Henry 4, Sophie Hall 2