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Connellsville girls hang tough, edge Laurel Highlands

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013,
Connellsville's Maria Merendino (left) and Saiah Mickens (right) apply heavy defensive pressure on Laurel Highlands' Emily Hartsek (center) in the first half of Connellsville's match up against Laurel Highlands held on Monday, February 4, 2013. Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier

The Section 1-AAAA girls basketball game between Connellsville and visiting Laurel Highlands on Monday was one both teams can build on.

The Fillies, despite being winless this season, played extremely well and led for most of the game. But the Falcons, to their credit, hung tough and were able to pull out a hard-fought, 43-40 victory.

Maria Merendino, who led the Falcons (8-13, 3-10) with 14 points, hit the game-winning 3-pointer with a minute remaining in regulation.

Connellsville won its second game in a row and finished with a season sweep over Laurel Highlands. Connellsville beat the Fillies, 53-34, on Jan. 10.

“It was definitely a wild game,” Connellsville coach Shawna Little said. “Laurel Highlands is scrappy, and they came to play. I was impressed. It wasn't that we were sluggish, but Laurel Highlands brought it to us. We had to make some defensive adjustments, and the girls pulled it out. We've lost a lot of close games at home, and the girls weren't about to let that happen (Monday).”

The Fillies (0-21, 0-13) played with a lot of energy and held one-point leads after each of the first three quarters. Laurel Highlands got off to a quick start: Olivia Crutchman and Kaitlyn Thurby each hit some early baskets to give the visitors a 12-11 lead. Crutchman (17 points) made two 3-pointers in the first quarter. Thurby finished with 10 points, all in the first half.

Connellsville led briefly in the second quarter thanks to a rare four-point play from Merendino and a couple of baskets from Marissa Matesic, but the Fillies continued to battle and regained a 23-22 lead at the half.

In the third quarter, the teams remained even. Alyssa Orndorff scored two baskets for Connellsville. Orndorff and Ashton Grimm each finished with seven points for the Falcons. Haley Moreland scored eight of her nine points in the third quarter, as Laurel Highlands clung to a 34-33 lead heading into the final frame.

The final quarter remained tight, but the Falcons were able to build a four-point lead midway through. However, Crutchman buried two more 3-pointers to help the Fillies tie the game, 40-40 with 1:40 remaining.

“We have wanted her to shoot like that all season, and tonight she finally did it,” Laurel Highlands coach Amy Tungate said. “She is a shooter, and hopefully that will carry over.”

For the Fillies, fatigue may have been an issue in the closing minutes.

“I thought we got tired in the last quarter, but we still played well and I give credit to both teams,” Tungate said. “It was a battle, and I'm proud of my girls.”

The Fillies were close to getting their first win, but Merendino dashed those hopes when she pulled up and knocked down the game-winning 3-pointer just in front of Connellsville's bench.

“Maria absolutely had the green light and she banged it, and I'm not surprised,” Little said. “Big players make big shots, and she was due for a big game.”

Jason Black is the local sports editor of the Daily Courier. He can be reached at jblack@tribweb.com.

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