Podkul guides No. 7 Hempfield girls past Seneca Valley in opening round

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 | 9:30 PM

First-year Hempfield girls basketball coach Lindsy Muchnock said she never really felt much pressure to get her Spartans back to the postseason for a 17th consecutive season, and it showed in a first-round WPIAL playoff game Tuesday night.

Muchnock's Spartans looked every bit as confident as they did loose behind senior standout Allison Podkul.

Podkul's 16 first-half points set the tone and took the pressure off her teammates as No. 7-seeded Hempfield took care of No. 10 Seneca Valley, 64-40, in the opening round of the WPIAL Class 6A playoffs at Fox Chapel.

“It feels really good,” said Muchnock, who notched her first postseason win. “All the kids contributed tonight, and it was a great effort from everyone involved.”

Hempfield (12-11) moves on to face No. 2 Peters Township (19-3) in the quarterfinals Friday at a time and site to be determined.

“The first quarter we defended, we got a lot of good looks on the offensive end, but (Hempfield) knocked down a ton of shots,” Seneca Valley coach Rob Lombardo said. “In playoff basketball, (during) every possession you have to get a stop and you have to make them uncomfortable.”

Only problem was Seneca Valley (11-11) failed to make Podkul uncomfortable. The 5-foot-8 guard took over in the first half. While the Raiders' size was giving the Spartans shooters some difficulty early on, Podkul did her damage with mid-range jumpers. She ran the floor after a steal and finished with a layup to give Hempfield an 11-8 lead late in the first quarter, giving the Spartans some much-needed momentum.

“I think we just came in hard, we knew it was going to be a hard game and we knew that we needed to start from the tip off,” said Podkul, who finished with a team-high 18 points.

Podkul's hot hand showed no signs of cooling off in the second quarter when she scored eight points. Both teams picked up the pace of play to a near sprint, resulting in errant passes and sloppy play on both sides.

“Allison (Podkul's) a senior who doesn't want to stop playing,” Muchnock said. “She did a great job for us.”

While the Raiders were focused on Podkul, Hempfield junior guard Jessica Persin got hot from behind the 3-point arc and made three 3-pointers in the first half to keep the Seneca Valley defense honest. She finished with 11 points.

“Their other shooters knocked down shots. (Podkul's performance) opened up other girls, and they took advantage of it,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo knew going into the game his young team could either shoot lights out or fall flat. In the second half, Lombardo saw the future, albeit for a short moment. The Raiders came out in the third quarter and went on a 6-0 run to bring the score to 34-30 before Muchnock called a timeout to regroup her players.

“Give credit to (Seneca Valley),” Muchnock said “I told the kids at halftime that this game was far from over, and it's not over until the final buzzer.”

The timeout was exactly what her team needed. Sophomore Sarah Liberatore stopped the run when she drove baseline and banked a tough shot off the glass to give the Spartans a 36-30 lead with 5:43 remaining.

Hempfield began to exploit the cracks in the Raiders' defense, especially down low in the post. Liberatore scored six of her 11 points in the third quarter, all in the paint.

Hempfield held a commanding 50-34 lead entering the fourth quarter. Junior guard Sarah Golden paced the Spartans by scoring all eight of her points in the final quarter to provide Hempfield some insurance points.

“It feels good to be back in the playoffs, and we want more,” Muchnock said. “The kids really showed maturity.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

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