Heartbreaker: Lady Dragons narrowly miss berth in state playoffs
MEADVILLE – Sports can bring about a wide spectrum of emotions, and the Warren Lady Dragons may have experienced all of them in Saturday’s District 10 Class 5A third-place game against Hickory.
They came agonizingly close to earning a trip to the state playoffs, but it wasn’t meant to be, as they dropped a heartbreaking 62-61 decision at Meadville High School.
With the ball, down 1 and 1.5 seconds left on the clock, freshman Kelsey Stuart, who was phenomenal down the stretch, received the inbounds pass from Rachel Wilson near the top of the key and had Alanna Hultberg cutting wide open for a potential game-winning layup. The clock ran out before Hultberg’s shot, however, and the Lady Hornets escaped with D-10’s final bid into the PIAA playoffs.
“John (assistant coach John White) and I talk about it all the time, with a loss, you’d rather have it come by 20 than by 1,” said Warren coach Lisa LaVan. “Obviously as players and coaches you question everything. Everything you called out, everything you did. But as we always say, we chase failure and we chased failure today and unfortunately we actually did fail. I know I learned a lot as a coach and my players learned a lot. That, in the end, is what’s most important to me.”
In a game that seemed as if it had endless ebbs and flows, the Lady Dragons jumped out to a 15-point lead in the first half and were on the receiving end of a 13-2 run early in the fourth quarter that not only saw Hickory take its first lead of the game, but extend it to 10 with 5:12 remaining.
Hickory’s Isabella DeJulia, averaging under 5 ppg., came up huge for her team, scoring 10 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter.
The Lady Dragons didn’t panic when they got down, however. Margo Loutzenhiser, who was brilliant once again with 30 points, hit a runner in the lane, followed by a pair of free throws and a jumper by Autumn Hultberg got the lead back down to four, 53-49 in the blink of an eye.
DeJulia followed with back-to-back buckets to extend the lead back to eight, but an old-school 3-point play by Wilson made it 57-52 with 2:35 to go, with Jessica White fouling out for Hickory in the process.
Warren was dealt a major blow just moments later, however, as Loutzenhiser was whistled for her fifth and final foul with 2:10 to go, sending Hickory’s leading scorer, Hannah Crow, to the free throw line for a 1-and-1 and her team up five.
A lot of teams would have folded in that situation, but not the Lady Dragons.
“I think it says a lot,” LaVan said about her team’s ability to fight back late in the game without their leading scorer. “I think that’s the first game Margo’s fouled out of this year. I think that they could have buckled, they could have panicked, but my seniors that were on the floor and my coach Laura on the bench, they stepped up and took care of things and kind of kept the troops together. It says a lot about their character for sure.”
With Loutzenhiser out of the game, Hickory turned its attention to Autumn Hultberg, who, as she has done all season, played the role of facilitator to perfection.
“That’s Autumn,” LaVan said “If there’s a mistake I made, it’s not making Autumn more of a scorer. She has a passer’s mentality. Wherever she goes to play basketball, they’re going to be lucky to have her, because she’s one heck of a passer.”
Three consecutive possessions she connected with Stuart. The first resulted in a foul and a pair of made free throws for the freshman guard, while the others netted layup attempts that she converted, the latter of which came with 1:15 to go and made it 60-58 after missed free throws by Hickory opened the door.
The Lady Dragons fouled Hannah Aikins with 1:06 to go and she calmly knocked down both free throws to put the lead back at four.
Wilson came back down the floor and was fouled, making 1-of-2, and the Lady Dragons once again fouled. This time it was Reanna Daniels, who missed both, keeping the door ajar for Warren.
Again it was Stuart, who drilled a jumper with 31 seconds left to make it 62-61. In a game where so many players stepped up on both sides, it was Stuart as much as any that gave the Lady Dragons a chance to win late, scoring eight points in the final 1:45.
The Lady Dragons forced a turnover on the ensuing possession and got the ball back with 21.8 showing on the clock. They got tied up with 15 seconds left but kept the ball with the arrow, and then turned the ball over themselves with 6.8 showing.
They went for a steal on the Hickory inbounds, but were unable to come up with, allowing the Lady Hornets to play keep away. They couldn’t quite run the clock out however, as Warren’s defense forced a travel with 1.5 showing, setting up the final chance for Warren.
It was a tough way to go out to say the least, especially for the four seniors – Autumn Hultberg, Morgan Lupole, Wilson and Lucks, but they battled until the final horn, literally.
“If you see everybody walking out, you’ll see what they meant,” LaVan said of the senior class. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the locker room. They’ve meant a lot, and everybody’s had a different role, which to me has been the most important thing.”
The Lady Dragons came out guns blazing, with Autumn Hultberg, Lupole and Wilson all connecting on early shots to put them up four in the first quarter.
Leading by five to begin the second quarter, Warren went on a 14-4 run, as the elder Hultberg and Lupole opened the quarter with made shots, and Gracie Wood and Loutzenhiser drilling 3s on back-to-back possessions, prompting a Hickory timeout with the score 27-12.
As quickly as they built the lead, however, it evaporated.
Jessica White and Crow nailed back-to-back 3s of their own to key a 12-0 run for Hickory, trimming the lead back down to three in just under two minutes, with Warren going into halftime up 29-26.
“I told them multiple times, 15 isn’t a lead, 13 isn’t a lead and on down the line,” LaVan said. “Especially against a team like Hickory that has a lot of seniors, has played a lot of games and is battle-tested. I’m sure they relaxed a little bit, but they knew. They did a good job of trying to keep us out of the paint. They had a good game plan. It was a matter of, our ‘Jasper’ defense, we were packing it in and we did some good things out of it and then they started catching on a little bit. And we were stagnant on offense when they were going on their run.”
Crow had 17 points to lead four Hickory players in double figures, while Loutzenhiser had 12 rebounds to go along with her 30 points and Autumn Hultberg seven rebounds and four assists.
Loutzenhiser scored 83 points in the Lady Dragons’ three playoff games.
For the seniors, they leave a legacy that includes a District 10 championship as sophomores, as well as continuing to lay the foundation of what has become one of the best programs in D-10, as well as memories that will last a lifetime.
“What I told them is, there you have a Morgy, who was scared to death as a freshman, was quiet and shy,” LaVan said. “She accepted her role as a JV player and pushing the varsity as a ninth grader, a 10th grader and an 11th grader. This year, she broke through into the starting lineup quite a bit and that’s surely because she paid attention, learned the game and understood what was going on.
“Rach has anchored our defense after her big sister (Paige) left and she’s done an absolutely phenomenal job. She’ll have a great career in golf (at the same school Paige stars at on the softball diamond, California University) and I think basketball has helped her with that because it helps her play in pressure situations.
“Coach Laura, my thing is, as a role player, she didn’t step foot on the floor much and was fine with that. She sat next to me with her piece of paper, scouting report and our plays and talked to me non-stop about what we could do. So many kids wouldn’t want that role, because it’s not in the limelight. So many kids, that’s all they want, and that’s sad, because you’re not always going to have that in your job, you’re not always going to have that in life.
“Autumn has to be one of the most caring, loving people I’ve ever met. Her heart is so big. She cares about all her teammates, she cares about everybody. If somebody’s sad, she’s upset. When somebody’s happy, she’s happy. She’s always trying to make people’s lives better. She’s going to have a great life, whatever she decides to do.”
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Lupole 2-0-0-4, Wilson 2-2-3-6, Au. Hultberg 3-0-0-6, Loutzenhiser 10-8-10-30, Al. Hultberg 2-0-0-4, Citro 0-0-0-0, Stuart 3-2-2-8, Childress 0-0-0-0, Wood 1-0-0-3, Paris 0-0-0-0
Crow 6-2-4-17, Brest 0-0-0-0, Roesch 2-3-4-7, Aikins 3-4-4-10, White 5-0-0-12, DeJulia 8-0-0-16, Davis 0-0-1-0, Daniels 0-0-2-0, Totals 24-9-15-62
Warren 13 16 12 20 – 61
Hickory 8 18 16 20 – 62
Three-point FGs: Warren (3) – Loutzenhiser 2, Wood; Hickory (5) – Crow 3, White 2