Mars girls take down WPIAL champion Gateway to reach PIAA semifinals

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Saturday, March 17, 2018 | 11:01 PM


The Gateway girls basketball team waltzed into the Canon-McMillan gymnasium Saturday for a PIAA Class 5A quarterfinal showdown against Mars boasting one of the stingiest defenses in the WPIAL this season.

Problem was, Mars had more shooters than the Gators could account for.

Led by junior guard Tai Johnson's 22 points, Mars was able to withstand the Gators tough defense and upset the WPIAL Class 5A champions 50-38.

“I think we have five scorers,” said an emotional Dana Petruska after the game. “(Gateway has) a nice team. I applaud them for winning WPIALs. I think that is a great accomplishment. I'm just so proud of my kids.”

Mars (22-6) advanced to the PIAA semifinals for the first time since 1977 and will face Archbishop Carroll (19-7) on Tuesday at a site and time to be determined. Mars made it all the way to the 1977 PIAA Class 2A championship game but ended up losing to Carbondale, 62-42.

“It's the quarterfinals of the states, games are going to tight and they're going to be tough,” Gateway coach Curtis Williams said. “Teams are better and better.”

Mars held a 24-18 lead coming out of halftime and went right back to work. Johnson, a Bucknell recruit, hit a running jumper right away and her freshman sister, Alek Johnson, buried a 3-pointer to extend the Planets' lead to 29-18 with 6 minutes, 33 seconds on the clock. The scoring dried up for the Planets after that.

Gateway (25-4) sophomore Lexi Jackson got going late in the third quarter. The 6-foot-3 forward scored on a jumper and a put-back to trim Mars' lead to 31-30 with 3:11 remaining in the third quarter. Jackson's put-back marked the end of a 9-2 run by the Gators that spanned three minutes. Jackson led all Gateway scorers with 16 points.

Mars senior guard/forward Lauren Waslyson, a Xavier commit, connected on a baseline jumper to add some breathing room, and sophomore Bella Pelaia scored on a coast-to-coast layup to put the Planets up 35-30. Pelaia finished with 10 points.

“They have good players down low, and Jordan Edwards is a phenomenal player,” Waslyson said. “If we came out and played tenacious defense, we'd be fine and that's what we did.”

Waslyson finished with 17 points.

Though the Gators outscored Mars in the third quarter, Gateway still trailed 35-32.

“I think (Gateway) was more worried abut their defense than they were worried about their offense,” Petruska said. “Sometimes when you got that kind of focus on trying to stop us from scoring, you forget about your offense.”

Even with a slim lead, Mars seemed content on burning clock for much of the fourth quarter. Waslyson had a clear lane to the basket but instead passed the ball out to the perimeter to eat up more time. The Planets were playing with confidence and were in control at that point.

“With that layup, we wanted to run time off the clock,” Waslyson said. “But being a senior, giving us two points would have also given them a chance to get the ball back. I wanted to push it out and draw more time off the clock. We didn't want to force up any shots because they have (Jackson) in there.”

Gateway couldn't find the basket for the first two minutes of the final quarter until Edwards, a Niagra commit, scored on a reverse layup to bring the score to 42-34 with 5:37 left. Jackson added a put-back and junior Mary Kromka added a layup to close the deficit to 42-38. Edwards finished with 10 points.

“Down the stretch, we really didn't get a lot of good looks, and Mars was hitting a lot of open shots,” Edwards said.

Mars went 7 of 11 from the free-throw line in the game's final two minutes to pull away.

“Coming in, it was a big revenge game for us since they're the WPIAL champs and we lost to them on Dec. 12th,” Waslyson said. “We wanted to upset them, we knew we could and we have the personnel to do it.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

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