Freedom stuns WPIAL champion North Catholic to earn trip to PIAA basketball finals

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Friday, March 18, 2022 | 10:24 PM


As Freedom girls basketball coach John Kaercher would have it, “These dogs had their day.”

Talk about March Madness.

Instead of falling victim to highly touted North Catholic for a fourth time this season, Freedom decided to stun the Trojanettes, 46-39, in the PIAA Class 3A semifinals Friday night at North Hills to advance to the state finals for the first time.

The Bulldogs (22-5) will take on District 12 champion Neumann-Goretti (16-9) at noon March 26 at the Giant Center in Hershey.

North Catholic, the state’s top-ranked team that beat Freedom twice in section play and again in the WPIAL championship, ends the season at 22-6.

The PIAA pre-seeds the state brackets, so there are no low-seed vs. high-seed matchups. But in this case, Freedom felt like the ultimate underdog.

As Kaercher said, “What do we have to lose?” Not the biggest game in program history, that’s for sure.

The Bulldogs outscored the Trojanettes in the fourth quarter, 19-10, holding them to two field goals.

“The girls deserve all the credit for this,” Kaercher said. “There were a lot of neahsayers out there who said we couldn’t do this. We proved tonight, we can do this.”

As if the opponents’ resume wasn’t daunting enough — a record 21 WPIAL titles and seven state championships have been won by North Catholic — Freedom was backed into a corner with foul trouble. With six minutes to play, the Bulldogs had five girls with at least three fouls.

Somehow, though, only one of them fouled out in a physical final-four matchup that saw North Catholic get held to its third-lowest scoring output of the season.

“Everyone played their role,” said Renae Mohrbacher, the school’s all-time goal scorer in soccer with 175. Mohrbacher set basketball goals this winter, some that are suddenly realistic.

“This felt amazing and to do it with my sister, I couldn’t ask for much more,” she said. “It’s even sweeter to beat a team like (North Catholic).”

Mohrbacher scored a game-high 17 points, making 9 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter. Her sister, Julz Mohrbacher, added 12 points and Shaye Bailey chipped in eight, including a 3-pointer to open the fourth to give the Bulldogs their first lead.

“We didn’t take advantage of our opportunities in transition,” North Catholic coach Molly Rottmann said. “We slowed it down. His kids played hard, give them credit.”

Freedom trailed 29-27 at the start of the fourth, but controlled the final eight minutes. Bailey’s 3 put the Bulldogs in front for the first time, and her tough layup made it 32-30 with 6:34 to go.

Free throws — 12 of 19 of them — in the fourth allowed the Bulldogs to gain some separation. A pair from Renae Mohrbacher made it 38-33 with 3:16 left.

Julz Mohrbacher scored on a delicate feed from Bailey to stretch it to 40-33 with 2:48 to play.

Tori Drevna delivered a deep 3-pointer from the near wing to cut the deficit to 41-38 at the 1:25 mark, and the Bulldogs turned the ball over.

North Catholic couldn’t produce a field goal after Drevna’s 3 and Renae Mohrbacher made 4 of 6 free throws down the stretch to keep Freedom in front.

“We took their best punches in the fourth quarter,” Kaercher said.

Freedom went to its diamond defense, basically a 1-3-1 look, after the first quarter, and it started to change the pace.

The Bulldogs had not used the defense against North Catholic previously.

“It helped us to create some steals,” Renae Mohrbacher said. “They weren’t expecting that. It kind of got us going.”

Rottmann did not think the defensive switch made a significant difference.

“We have seen a 1-3-1 before,” she said. “We just took too many quick shots. (Freedom) was good on the boards.”

Standout guard Dacia Lewandowski fouled out with 33.8 seconds left for North Catholic. She finished with nine points.

Alayna Rocco, the fast-rising sophomore, led the Trojanettes with 16 points, while Anna Waskiewicz added 11.

Freedom trailed 16-7 in the second quarter but rallied to cut the deficit to two, at 19-17, by halftime.

“We said it from the beginning of the year,” Kaercher said. “Let’s win a section title. We came up short. Let’s win a WPIAL championship. We fell short of that. To come out and do this and get to the state title … if you say it loud enough, they will start to hear you. We’re Small Town USA in Freedom. Why not us? We’re here to have some fun.”

Rottmann said she will be rooting for Freedom to bring home a state title.

“We wish them nothing but the best,” she said.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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