Latrobe handles pressure, tops Hampton to move into Class 5A semifinals

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Monday, March 8, 2021 | 9:02 PM


Emma Blair hadn’t done much offensively for Latrobe up until the fourth quarter Monday night.

She had only two points on a pair of free throws in the third.

But Hampton can vouch for the fact that Blair was doing other things to cause it problems — and to keep her team in front.

The 6-foot-1 sophomore forward made three key steals inside the final 90 seconds and pulled down 18 rebounds to help propel sixth-seeded Latrobe past No. 3 Hampton, 53-48, in a WPIAL Class 5A girls basketball quarterfinal.

With their fifth straight win, the Wildcats (14-2) advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1998 and will play at No. 2 Chartiers Valley (21-3) at 6 p.m. Thursday for a shot at the finals.

“I knew there were other ways to contribute to the team,” Blair said. “Other people were doing offensive stuff, so I knew I could contribute on the defensive side all I could.”

Latrobe was hit with another round of fourth-quarter pressure but passed the test with flying colors.

It led the Talbots (15-6) by nine early in the final quarter, but Hampton junior guard Kayla Hoehler led another comeback, hitting two free throws and one of her four 3-pointers to close the gap to 49-47.

A game of runs nearly saw Hampton regain control, but Blair made sure the Wildcats stayed ahead.

With Latrobe up 49-48 with 59.1 seconds left, Wildcats 6-2 junior Anna Rafferty picked up her fourth foul, and Hampton had the ball.

Hampton tried to get a good shot, but Blair picked off a pass with 20 seconds left. That led to two free throws by senior Rachel Ridilla to make it 51-48 with 14.7.

The Talbots then tried a cross-court pass to the top of the key, but Blair stepped in front and made some jaws drop on the Latrobe bench when she went all the way for a left-handed layup to seal the victory.

She was mobbed by teammates, who formed a giddy dog pile at the top of the key and tumbled toward the basket.

“She’s been doing it all year,” said Ridilla, who had 12 points. “I was a little scared when she started heading up the floor, but she made the layup. This has been unbelievable.”

Rafferty led the Wildcats with 17 points and 10 rebounds, senior Ava Vitula added eight points and Blair chipped in with seven.

“It’s so exciting,” Vitula said. “We have been waiting for this moment. … We’re ready for the next game.”

Latrobe made 9 of 9 free throws.

“We changed our defense and went to a 3-2 (zone),” Latrobe coach Mark Burkhardt said. “That was the best defense for the girls we had on the floor. I wanted our (starters) out there. We were going to win or go down with them. Our girls off the bench came in and played man for us and helped us catch up the first time.”

Hoehler made four 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 22 points, and junior Sophia Kelly and sophomore Claire Rodgers had 10 apiece.

“Offensive rebounds and putbacks were the difference (for Latrobe),” Hampton coach Tony Howard said. “I am happy with the way we played offensively, and I thought we battled defensively.”

Blair said long rebounds were a big part of the game — and how Latrobe stayed composed.

“It wasn’t just the post that had to rebound. It was everyone,” she said.

Blair added: “We have had three really close games, back-to-back-to-back. I think we’re getting more comfortable (in close fourth quarters).”

Latrobe started the game with a 7-2 run but Hampton responded in a big way, scoring the next 14 points to build a 16-9 advantage after the first quarter.

The Wildcats, who struggled to rebound early and turned the ball over in clogged passing lanes, cut it to 22-18 on a layup by Rafferty. But Rodgers hit a 3-pointer and Hoehler made two in a row from behind the arc to give the Talbots a 31-23 lead just before halftime.

In the third, the Wildcats used a 10-0 run to regain control. Vitula made a short jumper to put Latrobe back in front, 34-33, and 3s from Ridilla and Vitula stretched it to 40-33.

“You see a lot of teams freak out (in the fourth quarter), but we don’t do that,” Vitula said. “The close fourth quarters are working for us. Just play basketball.”

Hampton played without 5-11 junior forward Biz Watson, who was ruled ineligible for the playoffs after transferring from North Allegheny. Howard said she would likely have made a difference in this game and maybe beyond.

The Talbots are a team to watch next season with the majority of their key players returning. The team returned to the playoffs after back-to-back losing seasons.

They last made the WPIAL semis in 2017.

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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