ALTOONA – The Bellwood-Antis High School girls basketball team jumped in unison, jubilantly celebrating at the free-throw line while encircled by the Blue Devils’ rowdy student body. Meanwhile, a large contingent of Bellwood-Antis fans in the stands stood and cheered with delight.
At the other end of the court, McGuffey’s stunned players stood in front of their bench, trying to choke back the tears. Some tried by biting the collar of their jersey. Others simply stared at the hardwood court, refusing to look at the scoreboard or watch Bellwood-Antis’ victory gathering.
Yes, the more you win, the harder you lose. That much was evident after District 6 champion Bellwood-Antis pulled off a stunning comeback in the final three minutes and defeated McGuffey, 56-55, Friday night in the first round of the PIAA Class AA playoffs at Altoona High School.
McGuffey, in the midst of a landmark two-year run for the program, had its season end with a 20-5 record, and this loss will likely stick with the young Highlanders team throughout the offseason as it prepares for a move up to Class AAA in December. McGuffey led for much of the game, and held a 53-48 advantage with less than three minutes to play.
Bellwood-Antis (25-2) rallied on the strength of two long three-pointers by Anna Hollen in the final two minutes and a game-winning transition basket from the lane by freshman Karson Swogger in the closing seconds.
The game wasn’t decided until a 19-foot jumper from the left wing by McGuffey junior point guard Rachel Czulewicz bounced off the rim as time expired.
“We said all week that this game would probably come down the final possessions. Every play would count,” McGuffey coach Amanda Burchett said. “We just didn’t convert at the end. We missed some layups and free throws.”
The game was close throughout – McGuffey held the largest lead at seven points (14-7) – and a physical contest. The Band-Aid that covered a cut and marble-sized knot above the left eye of McGuffey’s Sammie Weiss after the game was evidence of the latter.
“That was like a football game,” Weiss said while clutching an icepack. “We knew that coming in. Both sides play tough defense. When that happens, that’s the kind of game you get.”
For the first 30 minutes, it was a game McGuffey enjoyed. The Highlanders outscored B-A 13-6 in the third quarter to take a 42-36 lead. McGuffey was handling the defensive pressure of Bellwood-Antis, a team that gave up only three field goals the entire game in its district title win. And the Highlanders were getting contributions from everyone.
Weiss paced McGuffey with 16 points through the first three quarters. Though Weiss didn’t attempt a shot in the fourth quarter, Samantha Chadwick scored six of her 13 points down the stretch and Katie Demi made a step-back three-pointer that gave McGuffey a 49-43 lead.
With the Highlanders leading 51-48 and 3:25 left, Burchett opted to have the Highlanders, whose style of play is run-and-gun, spread the offense and hold the ball.
“I thought we could get some layups and get to the free-throw line, which we did,” Burchett explained. “We just didn’t convert.”
Chadwick made two free throws to give McGuffey a 53-48 lead, but the Highlanders missed the front end of two one-and-ones and misfired on several other possessions. B-A, meanwhile, used consecutive threes by Hollen, the latter from the left corner, to take a 54-53 with one minute to play.
“They were hurting us in the first half by getting the ball to the middle of the lane. We cleaned that up at halftime,” Burchett said. “That did open up the three-point shot, but those were long threes that weren’t going in the first three quarters.”
Chadwick put McGuffey back on top by going backdoor for a layup and 55-54 lead. B-A, which was 7-for-20 at the free-throw line, missed twice and McGuffey had a chance to pull away. But Weiss missed the front end of a one-and-one, B-A rebounded and took the lead on Swogger’s 8-footer in traffic.
McGuffey still had two chances to win in the final 13 seconds, but Cassie Weiss’ three from the right corner caught the rim, as did Czulewicz’s shot at the buzzer.
It was the second consecutive year McGuffey lost in the first round of the state playoffs. But this one stings more than last year’s 10-point loss to North East.
“These players have done amazing things the last two years,” Burchett said. “We can’t let one game diminish that.
“The goal here used to be to make the playoffs. Then it was to win a playoff game. Then it was to make the state tournament. We’ve done that for two years in a row. These kids have completely changed the basketball culture at McGuffey.”
Hollen led B-A with 19 points. Karson Swogger scored 15 and Bailey Swogger had 12, including a buzzer-beating layup at the end of the first half, a basket that loomed large at game’s end.
Blue Devils coach Jim Swaney was unavailable for comment.