Silver lining for Brentwood girls basketball team

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Saturday, March 2, 2019 | 10:11 AM


Playing for a WPIAL championship at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center was a dream-come-true for the Brentwood girls basketball team.

“It has been my dream forever,” said senior guard Anna Betz, the Spartans’ leading scorer with a 14.8 ppg average. “We talked about playing at the Peterson Events Center since the beginning of the basketball season. We worked extremely hard as a team to get to this point.”

Rebecca Dirling, a senior forward, chimed in.

“Everyone was thrilled to have this opportunity,” Dirling said. “We will definitely not take it for granted.”

No. 4-seed Our Lady of the Sacred Heart edged No. 2 Brentwood, 50-48, in the WPIAL Class 2A girls championship game Feb. 28 at Peterson Events Center.

The Chargers were led by 5-foot-11 senior guard/forward Ashley Norling with 23 points, including an 8 for 8 effort at the foul line in the fourth quarter. Norling, who’s headed to Pitt-Johnstown in the fall, averaged 18.2 ppg this season.

Emily Schuck, a freshman forward, chipped in with 11 points — all in the second half.

Brentwood was sparked by the “big game” performance of 5-7 senior guard Natalie Murrio, who netted a career-high 27 points.

Murrio accounted for 11 of the Spartans’ 15 first-half points, and added 16 points after halftime including 14 in the game’s final eight minutes.

On the season, Murrio averaged 11 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4 assists per game. She poured in 50 points in her team’s three WPIAL playoff contests, an average of 16.7 ppg.

“It doesn’t feel good to lose, but we have really worked hard to get where we’re at,” Murrio said. “We fought until the very end, and I couldn’t be more proud of my team and our performance this season. We fell short in the end, but we aren’t done yet.”

Murrio connected for 11 field goals, including a pair of treys, against OLSH, and was 3 for 3 at the foul line.

“This was definitely Natalie’s best game of her high school career,” Rachel Thomas, Brentwood’s coach, said. “She truly left it all on the court, playing great on both sides of the ball.

“Natalie has been a consistent player all year. You’re not on a roller coaster with her. She always give us a solid performance; I’m extremely proud of her.”

Brentwood, which saw its 13-game winning streak stopped, fell to 19-4 overall. OLSH improved to 21-4 with its eighth straight victory and 16th in 17 games.

“One of the things I love about this team is it never quits,” Thomas said. “This team always plays with heart. We are a small district that graduates 85 students a year, and to be as competitive as we are is absolutely amazing. These girls work hard every day and they have won the hearts of the community.

“To see that pride they have, the parents have and the community has; it’s nice to see Brentwood basketball back on the map, so to speak.”

The Spartans played with a bulldog mentality, scratching and clawing for every point along with the way. It was an uphill struggle from the outset, as OLSH jumped out to an early 9-2 lead.

“We didn’t lose this game in the fourth quarter, we lost it in the first quarter,” Thomas said. “We were jittery in the first quarter and we made some bad decisions. We came out and just struggled, and it was too hard for us to overcome.”

It was the first WPIAL title in girls basketball in school history for OLSH, which lost in the finals to Monessen in 1995, to Greensburg Central Catholic in 2006 and to South Park in 2008.

The Chargers, who defeated No. 1 seed and defending WPIAL champion Bishop Canevin to reach the finals, were counting the days since losing to Brentwood, 51-31, in last year’s quarterfinal round.

“It was 371 days ago that we lost to Brentwood,” said OLSH coach Don Eckerle, who picked up his 300th career win. “We waited and waited for this opportunity. We had a talk in the locker room.

“A lot of people worked very hard at OLSH. We’ve been preparing for a long time. We spend a lot of time on skill development. We knew we had a good team; we’re really proud of where were at. I’m really proud of these girls.”

Brentwood had the PIAA tournament to look forward to following the WPIAL finals.

Along with their athletic abilities, one of the keys to the Spartans’ success this season was their cohesiveness.

Team bonding off the court helps promote togetherness on the court.

“The preseason dinner and Christmas party are always at my house,” Thomas said. “A parent hosts a few dinners for the playoffs. I think it’s extremely important. The more they girls are comfortable and know each other, the more the trust is on the court.”

Senior guard Brooke McQuillan said the Spartans took a unique approach to their bonding process for the postseason.

“We all put slits in our eyebrows as a team,” McQuillan said. “Together, we have gone to Cool Springs to do recovery therapy to help strengthen and refuel our bodies.

“Team bonding is a huge factor in a team’s success. While connecting with one another off the court, we see each other in a different light. It makes us comfortable to communicate with our thoughts and feelings. By doing this, it helps us get to know how each other better on and off the court. It’s all about chemistry.”

Murrio said the Spartans spend much of their free time in group activities.

“We are a very close team and we do a lot together,” Murrio said.

Brentwood was able to score only five points in the first quarter and 10 in the second. The Spartans trailed 20-15 at halftime and 32-27 after three quarters, but never could catch the Chargers, trimming their deficit to one point twice in the contest.

OLSH built its biggest lead at 44-35 with 1:52 to go. Murrio and senior guard Abby Wolf led a late, furious charge for the visiting side.

Wolf scored five of her eight points in the fourth quarter.

“I was super excited to play at Petersen Events Center,” Wolf said. “I’m proud of my team.”

Betz finished with nine points. She added, “We play as a team not as individuals.”

Brentwood trailed 46-44, 48-46 and by the final two-point margin in the game’s final seconds.

Maura Daly, a freshman guard, hit a shot for the Spartans with .4 remaining, and was fouled on the play. Brentwood couldn’t come up with the rebound on the ensuing free throw.

“I think there were a couple calls that hurt us at critical moments,” Thomas said. “I thought Maura had a 3 there at the end of the game. But it seemed just as we’re about to tie it or take the lead, we’d make a mistake or our shot didn’t fall, and they went down and scored. It took some of the wind out of our sails.”

The taller OLSH squad outrebounded the Spartans, 34-23, as Norling and senior forward Maddie Hoff pulled down 12 and 10 rebounds, respectively.

The 5-10 Dirling led in the rebounding department for Brentwood, which made its first title game appearance since 1994 when the Spartans fell to Avonworth.

OLSH will face Blairsville, the No. 4 seed from District 6, in its PIAA opener March 8 at a site and time to be determined.

Brentwood will play Penns Manor from Indiana County in its PIAA opener March 8.

The Spartans were seeking their first WPIAL title since 1979.

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