Freedom falls to Neumann-Goretti in 1st state championship appearance

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Saturday, March 26, 2022 | 2:09 PM


HERSHEY – Freedom wanted to win a state title in its first trip to Hershey, but the championship trophy went home with a team that already owned four.

Still, the Bulldogs were confident they took home something else: some statewide respect.

“Nobody thought we’d be here,” sophomore Shaye Bailey said. “No one thought we counted.”

Neumann-Goretti senior Mihjae Hayes scored 32 points, but she needed to go 6 for 6 on foul shots in the final minute to defeat Freedom, 55-49, in the PIAA Class 3A girls basketball final at Giant Center. Nobody else had come within 18 points of the Saints in this tournament.

“We gave Neumann-Goretti everything that they could handle,” Freedom coach John Kaercher said.

The state title was the fifth for Neumann-Goretti (17-9), which won four in a row from 2015-18. Yet, WPIAL runner-up Freedom (22-6) battled the Philadelphia Catholic League power well into the fourth quarter.

Bailey scored a team-high 21 points, senior Renae Mohrbacher had 17 points and 12 rebounds, and her sister Julz Mohrbacher grabbed 10 rebounds.

“We’re not a team that gives up,” Bailey said. “If we’re down, we keep pushing to get back into the lead, get back into the game.

“We never quit.”

Neumann-Goretti’s lead was just two points after Bailey made two free throws early in the fourth quarter, and again was down to two when senior Cadence Gorajewski made a layup with six minutes left.

Each time, Neumann-Goretti answered. Hayes scored 15 of her team’s 17 fourth-quarter points, a determined effort that earned the Saints another title.

Still, Kaercher praised his team’s effort.

“They should walk out of here with their heads held high,” Kaercher said, “because all year long it’s been nothing but naysayers telling us we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t get here. Today, we proved we are one of the best teams in 3A.”

Stopping Hayes was their biggest challenge. The 5-foot-5 point guard went 11 for 19 shooting from the field and 7 for 11 from the foul line. In the fourth quarter alone, she made four of her five shots,

The Saints played a physical style and set screens to get Hayes to the basket. Hayes went 1 for 5 from the foul line in the first three quarter before going 6 for 6 in the fourth.

“We’ve seen some physical teams and no team was as physical as us,” Bailey said. “But Neumann-Goretti showed they could be as aggressive as us.”

Amirah Hackney added 11 points for Neumann-Goretti.

Freedom’s defensive options were limited with Bailey and Julz Mohrbacher each in foul trouble. Bailey earned her third foul with about four minutes left in the second quarter.

“We had another plan devised, but when you have two of our best defenders pick up three fouls … you can’t make a change,” Kaercher said. “You can’t go to a box-and-one. You can’t go to a triangle-and-two. You’ve got to limit your fouls.”

Freedom led 14-10 after the first quarter and trailed by one point at half. The Bulldogs surged ahead 29-27 early in the third quarter and later forced a tie at 32 on a runner by Renae Mohrbacher.

A couple of late baskets in the third gave Neumann-Goretti a 38-34 lead entering the fourth, and the Saints held that lead through the final eight minutes.

Neumann-Goretti’s largest fourth-quarter lead was eight points with about three minutes left. However, Freedom kept battling and a layup by Bailey with 54 seconds narrowed the deficit to 49-45.

Hayes’ work at the foul line kept the Saints in the lead. She made two free throws with 52 seconds left, two more at the 19-second mark and another pair with five seconds.

Freedom finished as both the WPIAL and PIAA runner-up.

“The game plan was don’t quit, don’t give up, just have fun,” Bailey said. “We really had nothing to lose. Being here was a gift to us.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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