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TJ girls sweep past Ambridge in WPIAL playoffs

| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 5:15 p.m.

In one of the most evenly matched preliminary round games of the WPIAL Class AAA girls basketball playoffs, Thomas Jefferson outlasted Ambridge, 50-36, on Saturday afternoon at North Allegheny, much to the surprise of Jaguars coach Phil Shar.

“I thought this was going to come down to the last possession,” Shar said. “Us winning by 14? I'm like shocked.”

With almost identical records, both teams entered the playoffs on similar paths, competing in tough sections, which got them big-game experience.

The only major difference was that Ambridge (13-10) made the playoffs a year ago, while Thomas Jefferson (13-9) failed to reach 10 victories.

But it was the Jaguars who gained the lead by the end of the first quarter and never lost it.

“We were very, very patient with the ball,” TJ guard Paige Risley said. “We didn't force anything. We took very good shots.”

Risley finished with six points on two long 3-pointers and added five rebounds as TJ's motor, while teammate Haley Kutscher scored a game-high 13 points, including a 3-pointer before the half to give the Jaguars a 26-18 lead at half.

“I think we were nervous (early on),” TJ guard Alexis Yanief said.

“Once the nerves were gone, we settled down and did our thing.”

With the initial playoff nerves behind them, the Jaguars opened up a 32-22 lead midway through the third quarter.

Unlike the first half, Thomas Jefferson was able to work the ball low and score easy points in the paint.

“It was hard to get inside (early). We were taking a lot of 15- and 18-footers,” Shar said.

“Once they came out we were smart enough to throw it inside.”

Every Bridgers comeback attempt was answered.

“They kept trying to fight back, but it seemed like every time we fought back we gave up a little bit,” Ambridge coach Nikki Santiago said.

Yanief, who entered the game averaging 16 points, scored 12 points, while Courtney Zoglmann added 12 of her own, mostly on layups.

Sydney Rabold led Ambridge with 13 points, including three 3-pointers.

With the win, Thomas Jefferson hopes momentum will carry over for its first-round game with third-seeded South Park (18-4) on Wednesday at a site and time to be determined.

“It really boosts morale,” Risley said. “It makes us even more ready to play South Park.”

Justin Criado is a freelance writer.

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