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PIAA Class 4A: Bench lifts Wood girls to title game

03/19/2022, 10:30pm EDT
By Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)

BETHLEHEM — Allie Fleming got to her spot, loaded up and fired.

Before the ball even reached the net, Archbishop Wood coach Mike McDonald pointed across the court to the junior guard. The shot, naturally, was good as the "Southpaw Sniper" had again burned Jim Thorpe's defense as part of a 17-point day off the Vikings' bench to lead a unit that made a huge impact in Wood's PIAA Class 4A semifinal game.

Fleming had the hottest hand, but with a reserve unit that combined for 24 points plus good defense, Wood's depth was the difference as the Vikings stopped the Olympians' medal pursuit 57-44 at Bethlehem Liberty on Saturday.

"She does it every day in practice," Wood assistant Wendy Young said in passing when someone asked who the girl in the No. 15 jersey was.

Fleming, a 5-foot-5 junior, was in a bit of a slump to start the state tournament. In the quarterfinals, she hit an important three in Wood's game-turning run to end the third quarter. For a shooter, that's sometimes all that it takes.

"It boosted my confidence and I was glad I was able to hit a few more here," Fleming said, downplaying a 6-of-7 afternoon that included 5-of-6 from behind the arc. "We had a shootaround before the game and it felt like I was making most of my shots. In warm-ups, I started feeling more confident as we got closer to starting and I was just glad I was able to hit a few in the game."

Ava Renninger and Kara Meredith combined for seven points off the bench and at halftime, the super-sub trio had posted 18 of Wood's 35 points.

Ava Renninger, Allie Fleming, and Kara Meredith stand in a gym

Left to right: Ava Renninger, Allie Fleming and Kara Meredith combined for 24 points off the bench. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)

Wood has one of the best players in the state with senior Ryanne Allen. They have another Division I forward in Bri Bowen and a double-double machine in Deja Evans. The names have been different, but every year he's been the head coach at Wood, McDonald has had plenty of talent on his rosters.

Despite that, he always finds minutes for his reserves in every game whether it's against a nationally-ranked foe in December, a PCL war in February or a nonleague showcase opponent in January. He knows at some point, he'll need someone to step up off the bench in a big game, so he wants them ready when that time comes.

"You can't just plug them in games like this and expect them to be ready," McDonald said. "We give them a lot of minutes throughout the year to be sure they're ready and they're confident. We plug kids in all year long to make sure they're prepared and ready and today, they were ready just as we'd hoped they would be.

"The difference was we made more shots from our bench kids and the depth we could put out on the floor probably gave us a little more energy when it mattered most."

Wood expected a battle from the District 11 champion Olympians and got every bit of it. Where Jim Thorpe didn't match up was depth, with the Olympians only using one reserve in limited minutes until emptying the bench at the end with the outcome decided.

With Fleming, Meredith, Renninger and a little bit from Emily Knouse, the Vikings could roll out numerous different looks and lineups while keeping their starting five relatively fresh. In an old, hot gym on a warm afternoon in front of a large and raucous opposing crowd, every little bit helps and no matter which five it was, Wood didn't lose a step.

"In practice, we all work together and we switch our rotations so everyone is used to playing with each other," Meredith said.

Jim Thorpe led 8-6 midway through the opening quarter before the subs got their first call to action. Meredith and Fleming keyed a 7-2 run to end the quarter that put Wood ahead 15-10. Then Renninger and Fleming combined for a trio of threes in the second as Wood extended its advantage to 32-25 at the half while taking some pressure off Allen, Evans and Bowen to score every time down the floor.

Allen, who got 11 mostly by showcasing some impressive off-ball movement to leave defenders grasping at shadows, had five early in the third before Fleming came back firing again. The southpaw buried two more 3-pointers, the second eliciting the emphatic point from her coach and giving Wood a 50-30 lead as they rolled into the fourth.

"She's had multiple double figure games and played tough in games for us because she was ready," McDonald said.

Renninger and Fleming also gave Shannon Morgan a break from guarding Skylar Searfoss. The Olympians standout senior - heading this way next year as part of Holy Family's recruiting class - had 13 to lead Jim Thorpe but had to work extremely hard to get them and the Vikings limited the all-state guard's ability to create, an integral part of her team's balanced offense.

To win in March, teams have to do the work in December and January, which is exactly why Wood has such an ambitious schedule. As a newcomer to the program this year, Renninger is seeing that preparation pays off with a trip to Hershey.

"It's a really good thing for us," Renninger, a sophomore, said. "We play all these high-level, nationally ranked teams to get us ready for games like this."

Wood will face Lansdale Catholic in Thursday's PIAA 4A title game. Thanks to the Crusaders topping Villa Maria (Erie), it sets up the first-ever state final between two PCL girls' programs.

The Vikings handled LC in the regular season, but McDonald cautioned this is a much different and more confident Crusaders team

"They've got some young kids who are pretty good that are also getting more confident," McDonald said. "They're as excited as we are to be in this game. It doesn't matter who you're up against when you get to this game, it all comes down to competing."

By Quarter

Archbishop Wood: 15 | 20 | 15 |  7  || 57
Jim Thorpe:           10 | 13 |  9  | 12 || 44


Archbishop Wood: Allie Fleming 17, Ryanne Allen 11, Deja Evans 10, Bri Bowen 8, Kara Meredith 4, Ava Renninger 3, Delaney Finnegan 2, Shannon Morgan 2

Jim Thorpe: Skylar Searfoss 13, Leah Snisky 11, Olivia Smelas 10, Leila Hurley 9, Mackenzie Yuhas 4

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