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Young but talented, Penn Hills girls turning things around in Quad-A

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:57 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn Hills Progress
Desiree Oliver moves the ball upcourt for Penn Hills in a game against Hempfield. Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

It didn't take long for sophomore Jade Ely to formulate a goal when she started her career with the Penn Hills girls basketball team.

After watching the Indians finish 3-19 for the second consecutive season — which at least indirectly led to the hiring of head coach John Tate — Ely vowed to help Tate change the culture at Penn Hills.

“I knew that when I came to Penn Hills my freshman year, I didn't want to be a part of — I don't want to say a losing season — a team that doesn't work hard enough and fight.

“So, when we came, we knew that everything needed to be different. We had a whole new coaching staff, and we knew we had to work harder than the teams before us so we could be better and more successful.”

So far, Penn Hills' hard work has paid off to the tune of a 5-5 start, including a 2-1 mark in Section 2-AAAA going into Wednesday's makeup game against Plum.

The Indians are allowing 7.6 fewer points per game and have played close games with No. 3 Bethel Park, the defending WPIAL Class AAAA champion, and No. 5 Fox Chapel.

“We're 5-5 now, but I look at that and say that we've probably lost two or three ball games we had no business losing,” Tate said.

“I start two freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors. Some of the things that we do from a mental standpoint are to be expected. I don't like them, but they are to be expected.”

Ely has been Penn Hills' leading scorer at 14.7 points per game. She's also contributing five rebounds, two assists and two steals per game.

Freshman sensation Desiree Oliver, who already has scholarship offers from Duquesne and St. Francis, has lived up to the hype, delivering 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals per night.

Yet like her team, there's been some inconsistency.

“She's 14,” Tate said. “Sometimes we have 14-year-old moments. But if you look at the overall picture, the sky's the limit for her as a player.”

Oliver has been more responsible with the ball than even Tate, her AAU coach, expected; Tate said Oliver averages just four turnovers per game, despite handling the ball 85 to 90 percent of the time.

“I think my teammates can count on me to take care of the ball,” Oliver said. “On defense, I think I lead my team really well.”

Junior forward Marlon Herning has been Penn Hills' energy player while averaging a team-high 9.5 points per game. Freshman Ionie Banner has added scoring (7 ppg) and 5-foot-11 junior Jade Reese size underneath.

Penn Hills has relied plenty on its defense thus far, giving up 45.1 points per game — down from last year's 52.7. The Indians have achieved that by switching from man-to-man to zone to … well, whatever works.

Penn Hills made the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10 last season, but the Indians suffered a 12-point loss to Norwin in the preliminary round. The 68 points allowed were a season-high.

Motivation?

You bet.

“We spend a lot of time at practice focusing on defense,” Ely said. “We try to change our defenses to match other teams' offenses. We take a lot of pride in our defense.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him atjmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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