Winchester Thurston girls rally to defeat St. Joseph

Thursday, December 21, 2017 | 11:48 PM

So pleased was St. Joseph coach Sally Ackerman with her players' performance Thursday night — even in a losing effort — that she said afterward she considered it a Christmas present.

The Spartans led Class A No. 1 Winchester Thurston deep into the third quarter before the defending WPIAL champion Bears rallied for a 62-47 victory in the teams' Section 3-A opener.

“I could not be more proud of those girls,” Ackerman said. “We put a plan in place, they all agreed that was what we had to do, they all got on board, and man, did they execute it perfectly for us.”

St. Joseph led by nine points after the first quarter and extended its advantage to double digits in the second, but Winchester Thurston kept battling back and took the lead for good on Tati Barelli's putback of a missed free throw late in the third quarter. The Bears (2-1) outscored St. Joseph, 35-17, in the second half, including 17-6 in the fourth quarter.

Gia Thorpe scored a game-high 32 points, and fellow standout Ayanna Townsend added 11 in her first game back from injury.

“I saw that they really couldn't watch Gia with the ball, so I told her to keep the ball in her hands as much as she can,” Winchester Thurston coach Monica Williams said. “We just told them to pick it up and play their game, and that's what they did. They kind of went inside-outside with her and Ayanna, and we figured this year if we could get a couple points from a couple of the other girls on the team, (it would help).

“… It was a pretty good game.”

With Townsend still not at full strength, Winchester Thurston leaned more heavily on Thorpe. The senior's dribble penetration and ability to get to the line helped the Bears overcome their early-game hibernation. They didn't score their first points until more than midway through the first quarter and didn't take their first lead until early in the third.

“She felt like she had to take over and put the game in her hands,” Williams said. “She's supposed to do that — she's the point guard, she's the general on the court. She has to take control.”

Thorpe shot 16 of 20 from the free-throw line, and she, Townsend and Emma Small made things difficult for St. Joseph (3-4) on the glass, with more than 20 offensive rebounds leading to numerous opportunities for second-chance points.

“Truthfully, Gia hurts you on the drive — she breaks girls' ankles, quite frankly — (but) where she really gets you is on the rebounding,” Ackerman said. “Because she has a nose for the ball, and she just turns and gets it.”

St. Joseph's top three scorers — seniors Gia Angelo, Alex Jones and Chloe Kurpakus — combined for 41 of the Spartans' points, including all 30 in the first half. Angelo scored 16, Jones added 13 and Kurpakus had 12.

The Spartans took advantage of some early Winchester Thurston turnovers and foul trouble to take a 25-14 lead early in the second quarter.

“Our legs were loose, we were making our shots, everything seemed to flow nice in the first half,” Ackerman said. “In the third quarter in the beginning, we were all right and then we got a little bit missing our shots. For this team to be successful, we have to be able to make our shots because we don't have a lot of height.”

Winchester Thurston turned up its defense in the second half, holding St. Joseph to seven made field goals after halftime.

“We told them they had to come out with more intensity, and they gave it to me,” Williams said.

Both coaches found positives to take out of the game, their last before holiday tournaments next week.

Ackerman, whose team also lost to Class 2A No. 3 OLSH earlier this week, believes the Spartans are rounding into form in time for an important stretch of the season.

“I truly think that these girls are going to be so ready for our section,” Ackerman said. “Obviously, we lost today, so we can't be the (sole) section champ unless someone else beats Winchester, but we want to still fight for that. We still play them again, and we'll have everything ready for them and be ready to play them.

“Until then, we'll do our job and try to take down everyone in the section the best we can.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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