SLIPPERY ROCK – California overcame untimely turnovers to battle its way to the first round of the PIAA Class A girls basketball playoffs. After committing 52 turnovers in their last two WPIAL playoff games, Cal head coach Chris Minerd emphasized mistake-free basketball.
Facing Kennedy Catholic, the District 10 champions, Minerd’s game plan revolved around breaking the Golden Eagles’ press and for the Trojans to play with confidence.
Neither strategy came to fruition.
The Trojans committed 18 turnovers, many were unforced, as California fell to Kennedy Catholic, 53-34, at Slippery Rock University Saturday.
California’s season ends with a 21-5 overall record, while the Golden Eagles (22-2) advance to the second round where they will face Claysburg-Kimmel Wednesday at a site and time to be determined.
“We knew they were a high-caliber basketball team,” Kennedy Catholic head coach Chris Mele said. “You don’t beat North Catholic without having talent. They battled right back in that second quarter and that seems to be their mojo. They’ve done it in several games this season. Luckily for us, we held on.”
Facing an experienced Kennedy Catholic team that has won fourth consecutive district titles, California opened the game with four unforced turnovers in the first four minutes. The result was a 14-2 run for the Golden Eagles. California was overwhelmed by Kennedy Catholic’s press defense and attempts to lob passes to freshman Kylie Huffman or find open players on the perimeter didn’t work.
Minerd called a timeout to calm his team, which features just one senior. The message was simple: Take what Kennedy Catholic is giving and believe in yourselves.
Kennedy Catholic’s strategy was doubling Huffman down low, while allowing one Trojans guard – junior Kat Pankratz – to roam free. Pankratz capitalized with five points in the second quarter to pull California to within nine points at halftime. Despite the rally, the Trojans committed 13 turnovers in the first half, which was something Minerd wanted to avoid at all costs.
“That’s been the story of the playoffs for us,” Minerd said. “We know what we need to improve on going into next year. We need to cut down on the turnovers. You can’t win at this level with the number of turnovers we’ve had, but I’m very proud of the girls for the effort.”
California seemed to gain its footing as the second half began when Huffman, who led the Trojans with 14 points, broke free of a double-team to record an easy layup, but turnovers once again led to a 9-2 run for Kennedy Catholic.
Led by junior forward Tatum Kress, who tied with senior Taylor Hood for a team-high 15 points, the Golden Eagles hit open shots and were relentless in the lane.
Kennedy Catholic had 6-2 sophomore forward April Bocian in the lane guarding Huffman in the second half. Bocian was a force offensively as well.
California was forced to double-team her, opening Kress up for easy shots under the basket.
“They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect,” Minerd said. “We worked on breaking their press and honestly, our turnovers were unforced. We’re throwing it right to the other team and that does attest to their pressure, but it’s not like they were stealing the ball. We were just throwing it to them.”
California is losing one senior to graduation, guard Tristen Conaway. With Huffman and fellow freshman Jenna Miller gaining state playoff experience, Minerd believes it will pay dividends moving forward.
“At some point, the team will realize how big this playoff run has been,” Minerd said. “I know the importance of getting here. Its honor and a privilege, and I told them to not take it for granted because you don’t know when or if you’ll be back.”