Young Mt. Lebanon girls team continues to progress, develop

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 | 10:14 PM

Most coaches will tell you experience and depth are two key elements that most successful teams possess.

The Mt. Lebanon girls basketball team, however, is proving you can put together a pretty good squad without much of those traits.

The Blue Devils start three sophomores and have only one senior on the entire team, but that hasn’t stopped Mt. Lebanon from climbing to the top of Section 2-6A and putting itself in position for a top-four seed when the WPIAL playoffs arrive.

When Mt. Lebanon (16-3, 11-1) knocked off then-unbeaten Bethel Park, 52-51, on a game-winning basket by sophomore star Ashleigh Conner on Jan. 23, it was a reflection of the progress the young Blue Devils made from the start of the season. Because coach Dori Oldaker trusted her young players to play big minutes from the beginning, they were ready to swipe a victory from a Black Hawks team that had beaten them by 13 little more than a month earlier.

“I don’t recall a time starting three sophomores at Mt. Lebanon, but it’s turned out to be the right move,” Oldaker said. “All five (starters) are extremely coachable, and their basketball IQ is off the charts. We’re just trying to be a little more patient with some of the mistakes, because they are so young.”

Conner certainly doesn’t play like a young player, as the 5-foot-10 sophomore entered the week averaging 22.0 points, along with 5.2 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game.

A starter since the start of her freshman year — which not even Notre Dame grad Madison Cable was in her first year at Mt. Lebanon, according to Oldaker — Conner is the team’s go-to scorer in crunch time. She scored the winning basket against Bethel Park only days after a potential game winner against Imhotep Charter bounced off the rim, showing one setback wasn’t going to cause her to shy away.

“She’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever played with, and she’s very smart, especially for her age,” senior guard Patrice Smith said. “We rely on her at many points of the game, and she handles it amazingly. Some people who are that good can be selfish, but that’s the last word I’d use for Ashleigh. She’s really fun to play with.”

Smith, the team’s only senior and a Columbia track recruit, does a little of everything with 6.1 points per game and the team high with 37 assists entering the week.

But on a team with more girls who can drive to the rim than drive a car — Smith laughed when saying the team finally had a third player get her driver’s license last week — the senior’s off-court role is just as important.

“It’s not what I expected, because we started with about nine freshmen in my class when I was a freshman,” Smith said. “I think my role is kind of like being the communicator between the coach and the team. It’s fun, and a lot of it is trying to lead by example.”

Junior Morgan Palmer leads the team at 5.5 rebounds and is second in scoring with 10.2 points per game, while another sophomore, Reagan Murdoch, is third on the team averaging 8.3 points. Sophomore Brooke Collins rounds out the starting five, while junior Bridget Bruni and freshman Anna Streiff have provided some scoring and quality minutes off the bench.

Despite not going particularly deep into their bench, the Blue Devils have managed to battle from wire to wire in games. They trailed by 12 before rallying to briefly take a late lead in the loss to Imhotep, while they also overcame a double-digit deficit to win 55-50 in a tough early-season matchup with Altoona.

“I’d say resilience (is their biggest strength). Their grit is unbelievable,” Oldaker said. “I truly believe these girls have come a long, long way since the beginning of the year, and what they’ve showed me with their mental toughness has been tremendous, coming back against Altoona and winning against two tough teams in Ohio (Hoover and Hilliard Davidson).”

Oldaker said she doesn’t let herself think ahead beyond the next game and hasn’t thought about where her team fits in the 6A hierarchy with Bethel Park, Norwin and North Allegheny all looking like contenders.

But the Blue Devils have a belief about them, especially after moving into first place, that they can mix it up with any of those teams come playoff time.

“In the beginning of the season, I don’t think we were anywhere near where we are now,” Smith said. “I was skeptical about how good we could be, but now I don’t think there’s any place we can’t get to.”

Matt Grubba is a contributing writer.


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