Palarino scores 28 points to lead Penn-Trafford to first WPIAL finals berth
Anywhere Fox Chapel's girls basketball team went this season, attention during and after a game inevitably fell on the Foxes' 6-foot-3 senior forward, Erin Mathias, who committed to Duke as a freshman and signed with the Blue Devils this winter.
But on Tuesday night at Penn Hills High School, most of the buzz belonged to Penn-Trafford junior guard Maria Palarino, whose superb play paced the No. 7 seed Warriors through an overtime win against No. 3 Fox Chapel in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals.
Palarino scored a game-high 28 points, including 18 in the opening half, during the 44-43 upset, which advanced Penn-Trafford (19-6) into the WPIAL finals for the first time. The Warriors will meet No. 12 seed and Section 1-AAAA rival Hempfield (17-8) Saturday at Duquesne's A.J. Palumbo Center.
The combination of Palarino's shooting range — she made three 3-pointers and 7 of 8 free throw attempts — and ability to attack in transition challenged Fox Chapel's young guards.
“Palarino, she was the best player on the floor, bar none,” Penn-Trafford coach John Giannikas said. “I think people knew about Maria, but this is a big-time coming out party.”
Palarino entered the semifinals averaging 17.6 points per game, and she wasted no time as she climbed toward and ultimately past that mark. With two fast-break lay-ups and three free throws, she scored seven of Penn-Trafford's 10 points in the first quarter.
“We wanted to keep the game up-tempo and run on them,” Palarino said. “I couldn't have done anything I did tonight without my teammates, so if I get any credit for it, then they should to.”
At halftime, when Penn-Trafford led 24-22, only Palarino and senior guard Kaila Simcoviak had points for the Warriors — Simcoviak sank two 3's and finished with six points.
“We wanted to try to keep the ball out of (Palarino's) hands as much as possible tonight, and obviously, we failed to do that, especially in the first half,” Fox Chapel coach Meghan Meabon said. “We wanted to deny her the ball completely. That was our intention in the first half, but for whatever reason, it took us a while to comprehend that. The plan was to make the others beat us, and unfortunately we did that too late in the game and couldn't come back.”
Fox Chapel countered offensively with a balanced attack led by Mathias and sophomore guard Kayla Slovenec. They finished with 15 and 11 points, respectively, and both had their chances to become the hero in overtime.
Mathias moved to the game's forefront in the final moments of regulation, as she grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul with 8 seconds left and Fox Chapel down by two points.
She sank both free throws to force overtime and continued to thrive inside early in the extra period, as she scored twice in the paint in less than two minutes.
Her putback with 2:31, however, would be Fox Chapel's final basket. The Foxes went cold with a 43-41 lead, and Penn-Trafford rallied with a jumper by Katy Abreu and a game-deciding free throw by Palarino.
One last bit of hope emerged in the game's final 6 seconds, as Fox Chapel collected a missed Penn-Trafford free throw and charged down court, but Slovenec's fast-break lay-up attempt rolled off the rim.
“It was one of those games where you almost feel bad that there's a loser,” Giannikas said. “Both teams played their hearts out out there, and we just made one more play than they did, so fortunately, we're moving on.”