Hampton reflects on breakthrough season after playoff run ends

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Monday, March 15, 2021 | 12:59 PM


After the final horn sounded on her senior season, Hampton guard Liv Bianco slowly walked off the court and placed the basketball on the scorer’s table.

Behind her, on her home court, Latrobe players celebrated their 53-48 win over the No. 3-seed Talbots in the WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinals March 8.

“I was thinking of all the games that we’ve had,” Bianco said, fighting her emotions, “and putting the ball down one last time.”

Bianco was the lone senior starter for the Talbots, who rebounded from two losing seasons to go 15-6, sweep rival Mars for the first time in eight years and win the outright Section 2 title during a season marked by pandemic delays and personal sacrifice.

The Talbots had a couple of late chances to reach the WPIAL semifinals, but they couldn’t overcome a rare cold shooting night against sixth-seeded Latrobe (14-2), which used its interior size advantage to go on a 15-2 run to open the third quarter and take the lead for good.

The Talbots shot 6 of 24 from the field in the second half, including 1 for 13 from 3-point range. They had more turnovers (eight) than field goals in the second half, including two miscues in the final 18 seconds of a one-possession game, and scored only three points in the final 5 minutes, 35 seconds, missing their final six shots from the field.

“I’m trying not to work myself up about it too much,” junior guard Kayla Hoehler, who scored a game-high 22 points, said the day after the loss.

The Talbots, who overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to beat Moon, 64-58, in first round, again were playing without junior forward Biz Watson, ineligible for the postseason because of PIAA transfer rules. Sophomore Claire Rodgers started in Watson’s place and finished with 10 points. Junior guard Sophia Kelly also added 10 points.

Hampton, which had trailed 49-40, held Latrobe to two points in a 6:55 span of the fourth quarter but couldn’t complete the comeback.

“We had our chances,” coach Tony Howard said. “It just didn’t bounce our way in the last two minutes.”

There were no regrets for a program that two seasons ago went 4-18. The Talbots had a six-game winning streak early this season, and after a three-game skid, responded with seven wins in a row.

“I’m just so proud of my team and how far we’ve come,” Hoehler said. “It was a great season.”

The season began clouded with uncertainty. There was a three-week state-mandated pause in December followed by another four-day Hampton shutdown because of covid concerns. The Talbots dealt with numerous safety protocols and played the entire season wearing masks during all practices and games. By contrast, Howard estimates “about 90%” of their opponents played without masks, including playoff foes Moon and Latrobe.

“Our kids never complained about it. They never made excuses,” Howard said. “That’s what is so impressive about this group. They just worked and competed.”

Howard, in his 14th season, including eight at Mars, called it one of his “most rewarding years as a coach.”

The Talbots will lose three seniors: Bianco, forward Kate Schmitt and guard Cass Reinert. They were part of a section championship as freshmen and, following two difficult rebuilding seasons, went out on top with another section crown.

“I’m so happy that we got to where we were,” said Bianco, who will attend Kentucky and study to become an architect. “We all made sacrifices to make it happen. We were underdogs and nobody really saw us (going so far) coming off our previous seasons. I’m just so happy with how it turned out and how far we went.”

The future remains bright for the Talbots. They will return Hoehler, who averaged a team-high 14.3 points, Kelly (12.0 ppg), Watson (team-best 5.7 rpg), freshman guard Meghan Murray (3.8 apg) and Rodgers.

“Expectations are going to be even higher for next year, which is good,” said Hoehler, who got only five days off before starting practice with her AAU team. “I know what our team is capable of and what we can accomplish. We’ve already accomplished so much, and I can see us getting better next year.”

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