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Penn-Trafford girls top rival Hempfield to win 1st WPIAL title

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 10:48 p.m.

The Penn-Trafford girls basketball team had never reached the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game.

Even if the Warriors had, it's doubtful they would have experienced anything like this.

No. 7 Penn-Trafford erased a 15-point, second-half deficit to stun No. 12 Hempfield, 56-45, Saturday at Palumbo Center.

“We just really wanted it,” junior Maria Palarino said. “Our heart and soul was in the game. We did everything we could to come back.”

Despite a slow start, Palarino led Penn-Trafford (20-6) with a game-high 21 points. Casey Aunkst added 10.

Hempfield (17-9) got 19 points from Monica Burns, but Penn-Trafford outscored the Spartans, 26-5, in the fourth quarter to take control.

Aunkst went 4 for 4 from the free throw line inside of 45 seconds to push Penn-Trafford's lead to 52-45 and keep the game out of reach.

“Last game, I couldn't hit my free throws at the end of the game, and it almost cost us,” Aunkst said. “I just had to think it through, take it slow, tune out everyone and do what I do best.”

Both teams will advance to the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs, which begin Saturday.

Penn-Trafford will play Mt. Lebanon, the No. 5 seed from the WPIAL, while Hempfield will play Obama Academy, the City League champion.

Penn-Trafford tied it at 43-43 following Emma Mull's 3-pointer from the right wing with 4:41 to play.

The Warriors scored 13 of the first 16 points of the quarter, six from Mull and five from Palarino.

Penn-Trafford took its first lead, 45-43, on Palarino's driving layup with 3:41 left.

“It's a bigger stage, but the kids didn't let the bright lights get to them,” Penn-Trafford coach John Giannikas said. “They just kept playing their game.”

Hempfield used a 12-1 run midway through the third to take a 40-25 lead following a jumper from Leah Knizer at 1:27.

Palarino's layup and a 3-pointer from Aunkst made it 40-30 Hempfield after three quarters, meaning the Warriors scored 31 of the final 36 points of the game.

“I'd rather lose by 20 points than lose like this,” Hempfield coach Aaron Epps said.

Hempfield jumped to a 6-0 lead behind a pair of 3-pointers from Aubree Halusic and Monica Burns, both off screens from the left corner.

The Spartans forced Palarino into two early fouls and increased their lead to 13-2 — triggering a Penn-Trafford timeout — when Burns drilled another 3 from the top of the key.

Penn-Trafford's Katy Abreu was on target with a jumper from the right baseline late in the first, but Hempfield still held a 13-5 lead after one quarter.

Palarino knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing to cut it to 16-12 with five minutes to play in the first half before Hempfield ripped off a 10-2 run, a spurt capped by Lexi Irwin's trey from the top of the key.

Penn-Trafford, again, rallied back and trailed, 26-21, at the break following a 3-pointer from Kaila Simcoviak with 9 seconds left.

“We didn't finish quarters,” Epps said. “It cost us.”

Penn-Trafford did well. Quite well, actually. And the result was the team posing for photos with a Hershey's bar long after Palumbo Center cleared out.

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

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