This article was originally published on March 14, 2012.
Call it destiny. Well, maybe a curse.
Baldwin High School, which has appeared in the girls state (PIAA) basketball playoffs in three out of the past four years—and won at least one state playoffs game every time—has always drawn Mt. Lebanon High School later in the bracket.
And each time, Mt. Lebanon—the three-time defending state champion—has ended Baldwin's season.
Such was the case again on Tuesday night in the second round of the PIAA tournament at Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo Center, where the Blue Devils, WPIAL champions in three out of the past four years, improved to 25-3 for the season with a 45-32 win over Baldwin. The Highlanders finish the 2011-12 campaign at 19-8.
The game was played much closer than the final score lets on.
After losing big to Mt. Lebanon twice during the regular season—62-28 on Jan. 2 and 55-25 on Jan. 26—Baldwin actually led the Blue Devils, 25-21, with three minutes remaining in the third quarter on Tuesday. But Lebo responded with an 8-0 run to end the third, including junior Jordan Holmes' first six points of the game.
Holmes, a 6-foot-1 forward, finished with eight points and at least a half-dozen rebounds, including plenty on the offensive glass. She also influenced Baldwin's offense into taking bad shots all night in the paint, even swatting two or three attempts away.
The Blue Devils, deep and talented as they are, substituted more often than Baldwin and eventually wore the Highlanders down. When Baldwin pushed for more offense in the fourth quarter as Lebo worked to milk the clock, the game turned into a track meet at times.
Baldwin, with sprinters such as sophomore guard Amanda Johnston on its team, kept up for a while, but Lebo, especially sophomore guard Kelly Johnson, always had an answer for the Highlanders in the fourth.
Johnston and sophomore guard/forward Taylor Letender led Baldwin with 12 points each for the game, but Johnson led all players with 18 points, including a huge 3-pointer with 3 minutes, 53 seconds to play in the final stanza. That put Lebo up, 36-28, and marked the beginning of the end for Baldwin.
Johnston played a spirited game for the Highlanders. In one sequence in the fourth quarter, she bailed out teammate and senior point guard Taylor Wentzel—who turned the ball over at center court—by running down a Blue Devil from behind to stop an easy layup. Johnston then stole the ball on an ensuing in-bounds play and ran the length of the floor to set up Letender for two free throws with 2:54 remaining.
But Letender, who otherwise played a huge role in keeping Baldwin in the game, missed both shots, and Holmes followed for Lebo with a bucket to mark the game's first double-digit lead at 38-28.
Letender came right back with two points to make the score 38-30, but Lebo's senior guard Liz Tommasi, who finished with 11 points, scored the next four points to put the game away, 42-30, with 1:04 left.
The Highlanders rode the nifty ball-handling and passing of Wentzel (six points) for early leads. Wentzel, whom Baldwin's Head Coach Gavin Prosser said could be headed to NCAA Division I Rider University or to Division II Clarion University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship, quarterbacked a half-court offense that was effective at limiting Mt. Lebo's offensive chances in the first two-plus periods.
"The longer we have the ball the less time they have the ball," Prosser said after the game, "and you could see that in the first half.
"We played with the most poise that we've played with all year. That's something that we really wanted to do is play with poise, be strong with the ball (and) just be confident and believe that we could play with this team (Mt. Lebanon) and beat this team."
And to the Highlanders' credit, they hit enough shots in the first three quarters, as well, to make things more than interesting. Baldwin led, 5-1, late in the first quarter before falling behind, 6-5, after that period. (Johnston had all five of Baldwin's first-quarter points.)
And after Letender's traditional three-point play with 53 seconds left in the second quarter—and Wentzel's jumper with 25 seconds left—Baldwin looked to be taking a 14-12 halftime lead.
Senior guard/forward Emma Pellicano's 3-pointer just before the buzzer, though, made it 15-14 Lebo at the half.
Baldwin would go on to lead two more times in the third quarter, but the Blue Devils' 8-0 run to end that frame proved to be too much to overcome.
"They did what they do," Prosser said of Mt. Lebo's run. "They had a couple steals, a couple fast-break layups. They hit a couple shots, and it just got a little bit away from us."
Mt. Lebanon advances to the PIAA quarterfinals to be played on Friday against WPIAL runner-up Oakland Catholic High School at an exact time and location to be determined.
For Baldwin, it's the end of the road, especially for its three seniors—Wentzel, forward/center Anna Lauterbach (two points on Tuesday) and guard Carly Corcoran.
Lauterbach won't be playing basketball in college—she's accepted a softball scholarship at Saint Joseph's University—but Corcoran said that she plans to play hoops at Carlow University, which competes in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association.
Prosser and Corcoran spoke glowingly of their team's effort on Tuesday.
"We're sorry that it had to end this way," Prosser said. "We came in here expecting to win, but it didn't work out that way.
"Those (Baldwin's) girls left everything they had out on the floor, and that's all you can ever ask for."
Added Corcoran, one of the team's captains, "We did our best to prepare for (this game). We've all worked very hard throughout the whole season, and we gave it our all."
As for Mt. Lebanon, "They're a really good team," Corcoran said. "We always hope to pull the upset, so we've always tried to work our hardest (against them), but they are a really good team and a hard team to beat.
"(Tuesday's game) was one of the best games that we've played all year."