Penn Hills starts, finishes strong in Class 5A win over Thomas Jefferson

Friday, February 16, 2024 | 11:11 PM

Penn Hills played a picture-perfect road game in the first half Friday on opening night of the WPIAL girls basketball playoffs at Thomas Jefferson.

Then the Indians nearly flushed it away with a rough third quarter, only to answer the bell in the fourth to take control back and beat the Jaguars in the Class 5A preliminary round, 59-43.

The win allows the season to continue for Penn Hills, which earns the No. 16 seed and will visit top-seeded and undefeated Oakland Catholic on Tuesday.

“It’s nice to get in the playoffs, get a win and get moving along,” Penn Hills coach Robert Cash said. “We talked about taking it one game at a time, and we’ll figure it out as each game comes along.”

The Indians had no problem figuring things out early on, taking control early by outscoring the Jaguars in the opening quarter, 19-6.

“I was really pleased,” Cash said. “I thought we played really well. We played hard, we gave effort, and we were resilient. We stuck with the game plan and we put the ball in the hole. We’re going to play defense, but as long as we put the ball in the hole, we’ll be fine.”

Thomas Jefferson finally found some rhythm on offense in the second quarter, but still trailed by double-digit points at halftime, 34-20.

The pendulum started to swing toward the host Jaguars in the third quarter.

Penn Hills was limited to only seven points as Thomas Jefferson got two early 3-pointers by senior Laekyn Flynn and sophomore Riley McCabe, chipped away and cut the deficit to one point with less than 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

“We talked about it at halftime, that we had to come out with another great 16 minutes, we have to take care of the ball and we have to rebound,” Cash said. “We scrambled to get our defense set after missing some layups, and they hit some shots.”

One of the key moments in the game came in the waning seconds of the quarter. Trailing 39-38, TJ missed two free throws. Penn Hills got the ball, senior Hannah Pugliese drove the right baseline, and when the Jaguars defense collapsed, she fed senior Egypt Moore-Coleman for a layup before the buzzer to put the Indians up three at the end of three.

“Yes, it was big because they had two free throws where they could have taken the lead and Hannah was able to come back down and find Egypt for a layup that gave us a little bit of energy going into the fourth quarter,” Cash said. “We were able to get into our right set of mind and play downhill.”

Penn Hills scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter to build the lead back up to double digits and was never challenged again.

“For the most part, we changed defenses,” Cash said of the difference in the final quarter. “Our man was pretty good, but we were in a little bit of foul trouble, so we had to find another defense. Finding that right defense at the right point and time was the most important thing.”

Flinn finished her final game in a Jaguars uniform with 19 points while McCabe added 11 points.

After missing the postseason last year, Thomas Jefferson finishes with an overall record of 9-13.

Pugliese had a monster game for the Indians with 28 points and seven rebounds. Moore-Coleman had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds to go with six assists and seven steals. Sophomore Milani Oliver had 10 points for the winners.

Penn Hills improves to 12-11, having won five of its last six games.

Up next is a date with undefeated Oakland Catholic on Tuesday.

“They’ve got a great coach,” Cash said. “Eddie (Benton) does a really good job and gets everything he can out of his kids. He has a lot of good players, and all of that puts you at 22-0. So it will be a tough test on the road, and we’ll give it all we got.”

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