Serra Catholic overcomes Winchester Thurston in overtime for spot in Class 2A finals

Tuesday, March 9, 2021 | 10:04 PM

Grace Navarro isn’t one to dwell on the past.

The Serra Catholic senior might miss a basket on one possession before quickly putting it behind her and setting her focus on the next.

“When I’m playing, I’m kind of out of it and I can’t hear anything or pay attention to anything else,” Navarro said. “I don’t focus on how many points I get or how many blocks I have. I kind of just play my game and hope for the best.”

So when Navarro missed on a layup attempt with her team trailing by three in the final minute of regulation in Tuesday’s WPIAL Class 2A semifinal, she didn’t sulk or mope.

Instead, the 5-foot-6 guard redeemed herself by scoring five of Serra Catholic’s final seven points in regulation before netting the eventual game-winning shot in overtime of the second-seeded Eagles’ 58-55 victory over third-seeded Winchester Thurston.

With 1:16 left in overtime, Navarro gave Serra a 57-55 lead as she lifted a circus shot off the glass and in. Rylee Allebach hit 1 of 2 free throws with less than a minute left in the frame as Serra (16-0) held on for the win, clinching a spot in the Class 2A championship game for the first time since 2013.

“I just kept looking at the time, knowing it was close and that there was just over a minute left,” said Navarro, who finished with a team-high 16 points for the Eagles. “I honestly didn’t know if I would make that shot. I just threw it up and hoped for the best.”

Chloe Pordash added 14 points and provided some late-game heroics of her own. With Serra trailing by two late in regulation, Pordash hit a floater in the lane with 3.2 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime at 49-49.

Winchester Thurston (12-4) saw a three-point lead disappear thanks to a three-point play from Navarro with 41.3 seconds left in regulation. Then, Naya Nicholson hit a pair of free throws after a foul on Navarro before the aforementioned veteran hit a layup to tie it at 47-47 with 21.1 seconds on the clock.

Nicholson put the Bears in front again with 13.2 seconds left as she nailed a jumper from the elbow to make it 49-47. Serra called a timeout with 11.7 seconds remaining before Pordash’s clutch bucket.

“I have a locker room full of courageous kids who never give up and never give in,” Serra Catholic coach Bill Cleary said. “Everybody does their job, and we have a unique group with 17 total kids who pull for each other and root for each other. They’re not selfish at all, and I’m just happy as heck to be their coach.”

Navarro and Pordash were joined in double figures by freshman guard Cate Clarke, who scored nine of her 13 points off the bench in a third quarter that favored Serra Catholic by a 16-11 margin.

“She had 15 points against Seton LaSalle (on Feb. 22) and didn’t miss a field goal attempt,” Cleary said. “We see it every day in practice, but you never know what it’s going to look like until they step out on the floor in live competition. She really has grown up right before our very eyes.”

Neither team gained much separation throughout the game. Serra’s largest lead was at four points on three occasions, while Winchester Thurston’s biggest advantage was at six early in the second half.

Serra held one-point leads after the first and third quarters, and Winchester Thurston led at halftime, 20-16.

Both squads entered the game having surrendered less than 35 points per game this season. Each averaged over 53 points on the offensive end of the floor, too.

Therefore, the back-and-forth affair was exactly as Cleary had anticipated.

“Neither of us were going to run away from each other,” he said. “Everybody answered on both sides.”

Despite being in foul trouble in the second half, Nicholson helped lead the way for Winchester Thurston with a game-high 21 points. Maya Roberts finished with 18, including four crucial points in overtime that turned a 53-49 deficit into a tie game with 1:58 on the clock.

“We beat one heck of a basketball team tonight, one with a lot of talent,” Cleary said.

Now with their semifinal win behind them, the Eagles turn their attention to a matchup with top-seeded Neshannock in the WPIAL Class 2A championship game Friday at North Allegheny.

Serra will be seeking its fifth title in program history and first since 2005.

“I always look at the championship banners when we do the Pledge of Allegiance before games and I always see the years of past champions,” Navarro said. “Knowing how long it has taken for us to get here, it’s a great feeling knowing we’re going to get to play for a title.”

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