Aquinas Academy moves past Monessen girls in WPIALs

Thursday, February 24, 2022 | 10:39 PM

Sometimes a team just has your number.

That was what Monessen girls basketball coach Janine Vertacnik kept on saying to herself after the Greyhounds dropped their Class A quarterfinal contest to Aquinas Academy, 60-37, on the road Thursday night.

“They were just the better team tonight,” Vertacnik said. “Every time we play them, they are tough to guard. They are deep, and they really buy into their defensive system. We don’t necessarily match up well against them, and their size is a problem. When they got off to that fast start, I knew it was going to be tough to come back.”

Monessen couldn’t avenge a first-round loss to Aquinas, 34-30, in 2020 and struggled on offense throughout the game with turnovers, missed layups and some mental mistakes. Monessen also struggled on defense with the home team’s size; coming into the quarterfinal matchup, they were averaging 31.8 points allowed.

“Turnovers were the biggest difference maker,” Vertacnik said. “We couldn’t hold onto the ball and run a decent offense in the first half. They made us go faster, and we had no flow on offense. We were throwing passes everywhere and besides our guards, we are young. They hustle to every loose ball, and they are a step above us right now. We didn’t have an answer for their size.”

The No. 5 Greyhounds (17-6) are 5-4 in the round of eight since 2003-04, and they were looking for their first semifinal appearance since 2010-11.

With the win, the No. 4 Crusaders (13-6) advanced to their second straight semifinals and will face No. 9 St. Joseph, which sent shockwaves through the WPIAL with a 57-54 upset victory over top seed and three-time champion Rochester.

“Our ball movement was critical, and I thought our girls finished around the hoop,” Aquinas coach Chris Lebakken said. “We had an 11-day layoff, so we went with a full-court press. That press gave us energy. We switched up defenses a lot and kept them on their toes.”

The semifinal will be Monday with a time and site to be determined.

Both teams were held scoreless to open the game until Monessen’s Hailey Johnson knocked down a pair of free throws at the 6-minute, 41-second mark.

The Crusaders countered with 10 unanswered points, six of which came from Elizabeth Hardy. After Johnson tallied the next three points for the visitors, Aquinas ended the opening frame with a 4-1 spurt and led 14-6 at the end of one.

In the second stanza, the Greyhounds starred the period with a 5-4 rally to bring the deficit to 18-11 after back-to-back hoops by MyAsisa Majors and Kinsey Wilson.

In the late stages of the second, both defenses turned up the pressure and both squads struggled with possessing the basketball. Despite the defensive-first mentality for both teams, Aquinas broke through and ended the first half with a 14-3 run for a 32-14 lead at half.

Monessen began the third quarter with a 7-4 rally as Sidney Campbell connected on the game’s only 3-pointer in the middle of the run. After the teams traded baskets, Aquinas ended the third with a 12-8 spree.

Hardy, Elizabeth Russell, Emilia Kartsonas and Isabelle Hite scored four points each in the quarter for the Crusaders as they held a 48-29 lead after three quarters.

“We had a lot of balance on offense,” Lebakken said. “Any coach likes to see that balance on offense, especially in the playoffs. I thought we practiced really well last week, and the girls were up to the challenge tonight. They played with a lot of poise and composure.”

Mercedes Majors and Johnson collected hoops early in the fourth, but the Greyhounds were playing catch-up and couldn’t get enough stops in the final eight minutes to make it a single-digit game. The Crusaders ended the game with a 12-4 spree, and Hardy compiled seven points in the run.

Hardy scored a game-high 21 points for Aquinas, and Kartsonas (15) and Russell (13) were also in double figures. Aquinas has won 10 of its last 12 games.

“Elizabeth (Hardy) is hands down our most improved player from last year,” Lebakken said. “She can fly out there and if you don’t put someone in front of her, she is going to get to the hoop pretty consistently. Her production was huge, and she just attacked the rim tonight.”

Mercedes Majors was the top scorer for Monessen with 12 points, and Johnson scored 10. The Greyhounds will lose three seniors: Mercedes Majors, Kinsey Wilson and Zalendrai Hardison.

“I’m disappointed in the loss, but this playoff loss takes nothing away from the outstanding season these girls have had,” Vertacnik said. “Our three seniors provided us with leadership, and they were the focal point of rebuilding this program. They stuck around from the beginning, and they did everything I ask of them. The personality of this program has really improved.”

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