ERIE – The McGuffey girls basketball team stood together in the corner of Gannon University’s Hammermill Center early Friday evening and watched Erie McDowell High School nearly rally from double-digits against Gateway in a PIAA Class AAAA first-round game.
Roughly two hours later, McGuffey had the chance to perform a similar feat, cutting a 15-point deficit to seven in little more than a minute later. But an early hole proved too deep to dig out of as the Highlanders suffered a 59-49 loss in the first round of the state playoffs to District 10 champion North East.
“I think we could have pulled it off if we didn’t start out as slow as we did,” sophomore Rachel Czulewicz said. “Our first four minutes of just having one basket kind of killed us.
Especially when you consider that North East made five field goals and scored 13 points during that stretch.
With a starting five that consists of two sophomores and three juniors, McGuffey had never been on a stage this big, this noisy.
“It sounded like you were at a college game,” sophomore Sammie Weiss said.
North East, located a mere 15 miles from Gannon, started five seniors who were clearly unaffected by the raucous environment.
“All of their starters were seniors,” McGuffey coach Amanda Burchett said. “We play sophomores. We play juniors. They’ve played on this court before. You saw the crowd; it was like a home game for them. I think that got into our heads from the start.”
Weiss led McGuffey with 15 points, though that’s 11.5 below her season average. North East practiced a variety of junk defenses all week, head coach Terry Frontino said, but in the end settled on face-guarding Weiss with Mercyhurst recruit Alex Artise (14 points).
“She still got the ball a lot and drove,” Frontino said. “She has a strong first step, left or right, doesn’t make any difference.
“We’ve played against some teams with really strong players, and we’ve been able to hold them below their average every single game.”
After Leah Kowalewski (11 points) gave North East (23-3) a 15-point lead with a three-pointer 36 seconds into the fourth quarter, McGuffey ripped off an 8-0 run over the next 1:13 to pull within seven at 47-40.
McGuffey closed to within seven again after a second three from Cassie Weiss (eight points) at 2:42, but that was as close as the Highlanders (20-4) would get. The ‘Pickers scored eight of the next 10 points and converted all six free throws during the stretch, part of a 15-for-16 night at the line.
“The girls never gave up,” Burchett said. “That’s not in their nature. That’s the kind of team that we are. We don’t give up. They gave everything they had.”
North East opened with a 13-2 run, a spurt punctuated by a three-pointer from Tori Prather, whose hook shot with 23 seconds left helped the Grapepickers upset General McLane, 38-36, in the District 10 final.
McGuffey got three quick baskets – a bank shot from Abby Pattison, a layup from Cassie Weiss and a driving layup from Sammie Weiss – before North East scored the final four points of the period to take a 17-8 lead after one.
The Highlanders closed to within seven three times in the second quarter, though North East took a 25-16 lead into the locker room despite having Artise, the team’s leading scorer, miss the final 9:41 of the opening half after picking up her second foul late in the first.
A big help for North East was a 22-11 edge in rebounding for the ‘Pickers in the first half.
McGuffey again made it a seven-point game following a Sammie Weiss putback at 3:46 of the third, though the Grapepickers held a 12-point lead after three and stretched it to 15 with Kowalewski’s three early in the fourth.
“I think the mental aspect of it was the most difficult because we were on a bus for three hours – maybe longer,” said Burchett, who guided McGuffey, the No. 7 seed from the WPIAL, to the program’s first section title since 1990. “We have a young team. This is the first time this has ever been done for us.
“We knew what to expect, but we didn’t really know what to expect. It’s hard to mentally prepare for that.”