Shady Side Academy casts Spell on Avonworth, wins 1st WPIAL girls basketball title

Friday, March 1, 2024 | 4:42 PM

A first WPIAL girls basketball title was on the horizon for No. 2 Shady Side Academy. All that stood in the way was the reigning champion and last year’s kryptonite, top-seeded Avonworth.

Needing a superhero, sophomore star Maggie Spell saved the day for Shady Side Academy with a performance that will be talked about for a long time in Bulldogs lore as they knocked off the defending champs, 52-45, on Friday at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center.

“We worked so hard for this moment, and this is the result,” Spell said.

“Last year, we were so close, and I know that this whole season has been about trying to get back into this position that we worked so hard for, so we are all so excited,” sophomore Cassie Sauer added.

While it may be a second title for coach Jonna Burke, this one will hold a special place.

“When you win one, you’re never sure if you’re going to get back here,” Burke said. “To win one at a different school and it to be the first and only one is special because it connects us forever. It’s something that we’re always going to have and something that is going to be in the annals of Shady Side history.”

With the outcome still hanging in the balance nearing the late stages of the contest, the Bulldogs needed everything they could get from Spell’s “quiet,” as Burke put it, yet unbelievable performance that saw her score 31 points on 10 of 16 shooting.

“I did not know I had 31 points,” Spell said. “I was just playing the game and my teammates did an amazing job finding me.”

Despite a youthful Shady Side crew that boasts two sophomores, a freshman and one senior in the starting lineup, the maturation process went quickly after last season’s 41-35 loss to the Lopes.

“As soon as we got into the locker room after that game and looking at the look on everyone’s faces, I know it gave me the motivation to get back there,” Sauer said.

The battle for Class 3A supremacy saw the top two teams in the classification move in lockstep with one another through the first 24 minutes of action.

Attempting to break through a stifling defense like Avonworth’s proved problematic at times for Shady Side Academy (24-2) as the Bulldogs coughed up 20 turnovers.

However, efficient shooting brought balance to the Bulldogs’ play as they shot 50% in the first half with Spell and Leah Buford driving into the lane to leap out to an 8-3 lead.

Avonworth (22-2) wasn’t bothered, though, as the ‘Lopes closed out the opening quarter on a 7-0 run thanks to work at the free-throw line and a late Greta O’Brien bank shot.

From there until the end of the half, it was punch-counterpunch by two teams hoping to not see their lengthy win streaks come to an end. The Bulldogs came in as winners of 17 in a row and the ‘Lopes at 16 straight.

For Avonworth, O’Brien buried a 3-pointer on the way to nine points to lead all scorers at the break, while Rebecca Goetz added two scores in the paint.

On the other end, another one of the impressive sophomores that Shady Side boasts, Karis Thomas, put together her own four-point spurt to thrust the Bulldogs back into the driver’s seat momentarily. Thomas contributed 11 points in the winning effort.

“Karis is somebody that doesn’t get enough recognition,” Burke said. “She runs us. She has the knack of dribbling around people, pulling it back out, bursting it into speed when she needs to.”

In the final minute of the half, both teams bounced ahead of one another before Shady Side grabbed a narrow 22-21 lead via a Buford layup to head into the locker room.

The back-and-forth affair kept on rolling in the third quarter with three lead changes in the first five minutes as Goetz and Fiona Mahan buried triples before Spell registered four straight points to lift the Bulldogs back in front. The ‘Lopes couldn’t find that next level of scoring.

“We were right there. We just couldn’t get that run,” Lopes coach Nick Dizon said.

Spell wasn’t done. She single-handedly boosted the Bulldogs to a sizeable lead with 14 consecutive points.

“(Spell) can score at all three levels,” O’Brien said. “She can post, she can go to the hoop, and she has a really good shot that makes her difficult to guard. She went off tonight.”

Taking control of the game, Spell and company extended their lead to 10 points in the fourth quarter after a steal and layup for the stellar sophomore.

Avonworth struggled to return the favor as the ‘Lopes finally lost stride with the Bulldogs.

“We’re used to getting on a run with lockup defense and getting turnovers, and we just didn’t do that. It was hard to get us going, and I think the moment got to us,” Goetz said.

“We made uncharacteristic mistakes. It just wasn’t our day,” senior Eden Schleis added.

With Shady Side seizing control, it didn’t help as the ‘Lopes shot just 26.9% (7 of 26) in the second half.

That still didn’t deter a ‘Lopes team that fought to the end.

“Even to the end, we were playing how we like to play. Not as clean, but we were supporting each other, and that says more about our team than the final score,” Goetz said.

Goetz finished the contest recording a double-double on 18 points and 13 rebounds. O’Brien factored in with 14 points.

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