Latrobe to rely on late-game composure in WPIAL playoffs

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021 | 3:15 PM


There was a time when Latrobe girls basketball players felt a certain kind of way about fourth-quarter leads.

The ball became slippery, the heat of the moment unsavory, as time crawled by and became their enemy.

But this year’s edition of the Wildcats seems to appreciate the challenge that comes with protecting the lead.

Latrobe (12-2), set to open the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs at home Thursday night against South Fayette (14-5) as the No. 6 seed in what began as a 26-team bracket, clung to a five-point advantage with 54.5 seconds to play a week ago in a section-deciding win over Woodland Hills.

As the margin tightened to two with 23.2 remaining, the Wildcats took care of possessions better than they had earlier in the fourth quarter and held on for a 46-44 victory to clinch their first section title in 14 years.

“I don’t know if we got tougher tonight, but I can tell you we got smarter,” Latrobe coach Mark Burkhardt said. “We got smarter with the lead. We’re getting smarter late in games.”

The Wildcats showed means to a desired end with late-game patience in close wins over McKeesport (58-53 and 70-62), Gateway (51-47 and 56-51), and Albert Gallatin (49-43).

While the offense tends to funnel down to post players Anna Rafferty, a 6-foot-2 junior, and 6-1 sophomore Emma Blair, seasoned guards are responsible for getting them the ball and keeping the offense moving. Seniors Ava Vitula and Lexi Weatherton often join Ridilla and junior Bailey Watson in the backcourt, along with promising freshman Elle Snyder, who has not shied away from big games.

“They are not is such a hurry,” Burkhardt said of his guards. “They are being more patient with the ball.”

Woodland Hills beat the Wildcats by 13 earlier in the season. A tighter finish, albeit not perfect, showed a step up in composure.

“The game is never done until the clock stops,” Latrobe senior guard Rachel Ridilla said. “We are handling pressure in tough situations better. We’re ready for the playoffs now. We’re ready to make a long run.”

Burkhardt hopes the peaking-at-the-right time perception applies to his team.

“I told them our last three games are playoff games,” Burkhardt said, referring to a stretch that included Southmoreland, Albert Gallatin and Woodland Hills. “They needed to be ready to grind it out and play hard. They are responding well.”

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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