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Oakland Catholic returns to PIAA finals

| Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Fatigue and Altoona could not stop Oakland Catholic in its quest for a fifth trip to Hershey in six years.

With the score tied at 36-36 with 2:13 left in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinal game Tuesday night, Oakland Catholic junior guard Aysha Jones turned a steal into three points -- a basket and a foul shot -- that led to a 45-41 victory against Altoona in front of an overflow crowd at Indiana (Pa.) University's Memorial Fieldhouse.

The victory gave Oakland Catholic (30-2) a berth in the PIAA championship game against Cheltenham at 6 p.m. Friday at Giant Center in Hershey. Since 2000, Oakland Catholic has advanced to the title game every season, with the exception of one year. Altoona finished 28-2, with both defeats coming to Oakland Catholic.

After Jones grabbed the errant Altoona pass, she drove for the layup and was submarined by Katy Oblinger.

"I was completely exhausted by then," Jones said. "I just came down, got the steal, went down; just playing the game, that's all it is."

The Eagles were the beneficiary of 12 Altoona turnovers in the first half and seven more in the second half, but Oakland Catholic had trouble converting until the end. Nonetheless, coach Rich Irr wasn't concerned.

"That's a tribute to Altoona's team," Irr said. "When you get a turnover, they're going to chase you down from behind."

The foul shot by Jones after the big basket was a harbinger of things to come. Jones scored the final six Eagles points from the free-throw line. In fact, Jones was 11 for 11 overall from the line.

"I've been playing basketball for too long," Jones said. "You've got to stay in a zone, ignore the fans and, with the grace of God and the help of my teammates, get out there and do what I have to do."

"One of the things (former head coach) Suzie McConnell-Serio taught me when I first came here was that big games are won and lost at the free-throw line," Irr said. "Our girls know that, and in practice the last few weeks, we've gotten crowd noise piped in to our practices to get the girls shooting with the volume."

The noisy practices paid off, as the Eagles were 18 of 19 from the line.

Two more free throws by Jones with 27.8 seconds left gave the Eagles a 43-38 lead, but Kristi Little's 3-pointer brought Altoona to within two points with 17 seconds remaining. Two more free throws by Jones and an intercepted pass by Erica Prosser in the Altoona frontcourt allowed Prosser to run out the clock.

Little, Altoona's all-time career scorer, was held without a field goal in the first half, but she kept the Mountain Lions close by scoring 12 of her 14 points in the second half.

"She struggled," Altoona coach Craig Long said. "She had a little trouble seeing passes, making passes. She's had a superlative career, and she's done a great job overall."

Altoona held the lead for only about 12 seconds during the game, but it never fell behind by more than seven points. A steal near the Altoona hoop by Angela Tassari with time running out in the first period put the Eagles in front, 10-9. The Mountain Lions never led again, but tied the contest three times in the fourth period.

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