IMPERIAL – Desperate times call for desperate actions. And when the Cornell High School girls basketball team walked off the court at halftime of a WPIAL Class A first-round playoff game Saturday afternoon, the Raiders were a desperate lot.
Carmichaels had picked apart Cornell’s zone defense in the game’s first 16 minutes, leading to open shots for Amanda Brown in the middle of the lane or uncontested three-pointers by Caroline Cree and Morgan Berardi. The Mikes had an eight-point lead and the all the momentum.
That’s when Cornell’s coaches opted to try something desperate and switch to a man-to-man defense – something the Raiders only used late in games they were trailing or against hopelessly overmatched opponents. Cornell had never tried to play man-to-man so early in a game against a quality foe.
“My assistant (Robert Burnett) asked me if I had the guts to try a man-to-man,” Cornell head coach Shawn Urbano recalled. “I said ‘It’s the playoffs. I have the guts to try anything.’”
The switch worked to perfection for Cornell. Playing more aggressively on defense, Cornell didn’t give up a three-pointer in the second half, Mason DePetro scored a game-high 27 points and Cornell got some late offensive production from unlikely sources to rally and upset sixth-seeded Carmichaels, 61-56, at West Allegheny High School.
The win sends Cornell (12-10) into the quarterfinals. Carmichaels ends its season with a 19-4 record and wondering what happened in the second half.
“It’s possession basketball in the playoffs, and Cornell made the most of its possessions,” Carmichaels coach Jim Lane said. “It’s disappointing to have an eight-point lead, have Cornell go man-to-man in the second half and then not capitalize.”
Carmichaels led by as many as nine on the strength of 14 first-half points from Cree, who made four three-pointers, including three in the second quarter.
But after Cornell switched defenses, Cree was held scoreless.
“What the man-to-man did was take away our outside shooting,” Lane said. “We were living on that in the first half.”
And there’s an old basketball saying that if live by the three-pointer, you might also die by the three. And in the second half, Carmichaels didn’t make a three-pointer after hitting six in the first half. The Mikes’ second-half offense was limited to point guard Morgan Berardi driving to the basket or passing to Amanda Brown in the lane.
At times, that seemed like it might be enough for Carmichaels. Brown had a strong game with a team-high 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Cornell opened the second half on a 13-2 run to take a 34-31 lead. DePetro, who did not score in the second quarter, had a key three-pointer that gave Cornell the lead. DePetro benefitted from the man-to-man defense, which forced Carmichaels to play at a faster pace and generated fast-break opportunities for Cornell.
“Our game plan was to try to cover the three-point shooters, but in the zone we couldn’t do that,” Urbano said. “Our guards would sag and try to help in the post, then they’d shoot the three over us. We played that half at Carmichaels’ pace. We had to try something to pick up the pace and get us moving.”
There were five ties and eight lead changes in the second half, but Cornell went ahead for good at 53-50 on a three-pointer by sophomore guard Katie Plish with two minutes remaining. It was Plish’s only basket.
Mallory Stajnrajh then worked inside for a basket that pulled Carmichaels to within 53-52, but an offensive rebound and putback by Taylor Davis, who scored 11 points and had 15 rebounds, put Cornell up 55-52 with one minute left. The Mikes never got closer than two points the rest of the way as DePetro made five of six free throws in the final 60 seconds.
Nicole Byron had 12 points for Cornell, which had a 49-33 edge on the boards.
Berardi scored 11 points for Carmichaels.
“We left some shots on the table,” Lane said. “The opportunities were there, but we just didn’t capitalize.”