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Win over Franklin would shed 'underrated' label for EF girls

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 10:18 p.m.

After what it has accomplished this season, it might be a little strange to think of the Elizabeth Forward girls basketball team as underrated.

After all, the Warriors did string together a 17-game winning streak, went undefeated in Section 4, upset the No. 1 team in the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs and were within one win of their first title in 38 years.

Yet Elizabeth Forward (24-3) isn't being thought of as a viable contender in the state playoffs.

“It seems like people think that we're a surprise team and we shouldn't be there and some things like that,” Elizabeth Forward coach Sam Kosanovich said. “But we really don't pay attention or acknowledge that, and we just go out and play our game to the best of our ability. We can't control what people say or don't say about us.”

District 10 champion Franklin (25-1) will have a healthy respect for Elizabeth Forward before the two teams square off at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Slippery Rock University in the second round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs.

“They sound like they're awful good to me from what I can gather,” Franklin coach Bill Hager said. “I watched film on them during the day (Monday), and it's nice being a retired teacher so I can do things like that during the day.”

It would difficult to dispute what Elizabeth Forward has done this season. The Warriors knocked off previously undefeated Blackhawk, 78-64, in the WPIAL semifinals and, in doing so, qualified for the championship game for the first time since the school played in Class AAAA in 1990.

Of its three losses, two were to WPIAL champion South Park and the other was against South Miami (Fla.) in the KSA Classic Tournament in Orlando, Fla.

If that isn't enough, Elizabeth Forward won its first state playoff game in 27 years when it defeated Central Valley, 51-44, Saturday in a WPIAL quarterfinals rematch. The last time the Warriors advanced to the second round of the tournament was when they defeated Butler in the opening round on March 14, 1986. But the team isn't overly concerned heading into uncharted territory.

“It's a challenge, but the girls are a very good group and they're confident,” Kosanovich said. “These girls are good athletes and ... it's a combination of having a lot of players and believing in one another and their ability to play the game.”

Franklin's only loss this season came to a WPIAL team; the Knights dropped a 53-47 decision at home to Class AA champion Bishop Canevin on Jan. 5. The Knights' style is akin to the Blackhawk team that Elizabeth Forward has already beaten: a guard-oriented offense. It is led by senior Mara Benvenuti, who tore her ACL skiing on New Year's Eve in 2011 and came back to average 8.3 points, 6.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game. Junior forward Angelina Starr is the team's leading scorer at 16.9 points per game and is getting looks from several colleges, including Rhode Island of the Atlantic 10.

“Our problem is that we've had a running clock a lot of times and then, with four or five minutes left to play, I take out the starters and put in a lot of players from the bench,” Hager said. “Our last game (a 66-46 win over Ligonier Valley) I think I took them out when it was 66-29.”

Elizabeth Forward has experience dealing with teams like this. Blackhawk won eight games by at least 40 points, the lead required in the second half to start the running clock, and the Warriors came away with a victory. Their ability to parlay what they learned in that win certainly will help as they prepare to play a Franklin team that already has defeated three WPIAL Class AAAA opponents — Oakland Catholic, Fox Chapel and Woodland Hills — by at least 27 points.

“Our guards have to be quick enough to stay with them, and I know we can get that type of defensive effort from us,” Kosanovich said. “Our guards do a great job of switching, and we don't lose much when we have to switch off.”

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