HOLLIDAYSBURG — As the missed field goals mounted for Portage, so did the pressure.
And then, with a couple quick field goals, Homer-Center’s upset hopes were dashed.
Homer-Center gave top-seeded Portage all it could handle for three quarters, but the Wildcats didn’t have an answer for the Mustangs’ hot shooting in the fourth quarter and lost 56-38 in a District 6 Class A quarterfinal-round girls’ playoff game at Hollidaysburg High School on Thursday.
In a game that wasn’t nearly as one-sided as the final score might indicate until the closing minutes, Homer-Center didn’t trail by more than seven points during the first three quarters, and the Wildcats even surged into the lead midway through the third quarter.
It all unraveled in the final quarter, during which Portage outscored Homer-Center 26-9 to pull away, but the Wildcats left Hollidaysburg with their heads held high.
“Even though it didn’t end up the way we wanted, for three quarters we hung right there with them,” Homer-Center junior Julia Buggey said.
“I’m holding my head up high,” Homer-Center coach Tom Lasher said. “I couldn’t be any prouder of them.”
Homer-Center entered the final quarter trailing by just one, 30-29, but the Wildcats were staring at a double-digit deficit before they knew what hit them.
The Mustangs hit a 3-pointer on their first possession of the quarter, then forced a turnover that resulted in a layup for a 35-29 lead less than 30 seconds into the quarter. Paisley Zatek added another 3-pointer with 6ﾽ minutes to play to make it 38-29, and Homer-Center never recovered.
“It was right before my eyes. I didn’t even notice at first, and then I was like, Oh, crap,” Homer-Center’s lone senior, Sydney Horel, said.
After shooting 12 of 49 through the first three quarters, the Mustangs made three of their first four field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, including two 3s, and it seemed to provide the spark they needed.
“I don’t know if the lights went on or what, but that fourth quarter, it was bang, bang, bang. I looked up and we’re up by 10,” Portage coach Lance Hudak said. “Our press seemed to really wear them down, and it was just very effective in the fourth quarter.”
“Everything they threw up started going in, and when that happened, we didn’t have an answer,” Lasher said. “But we played well. We got one (playoff) win.”
Winners of 21 straight games, the Mustangs (22-1) had rarely been challenged like this all season. Only three of their games were decided by fewer than 15 points, and the longer Homer-Center hung around, the more worried Hudak became.
“We’ve not been in a lot of tight games this year, only two all year long, and you worry about that as a coach,” Hudak said. “How are we going to react? We haven’t been tested, we haven’t faced adversity like that. And you know, for three quarters, it was tight, but just making that one or two big outside shots (at the start of the fourth quarter), it was a collective, ahh. And then, it affected Homer, ‘Oh, here they go’ and started throwing some balls away against our press and we started separating.”
It was a game of extremes for Homer-Center.
In the first half, the Wildcats went on a 10-0 run in the first quarter to take an early eight-point lead, only to endure a scoreless drought of nearly eight minutes that left them trailing 20-13 at halftime.
Unfazed by their three-point second quarter, the Wildcats began the second half on a 12-2 run to take a 25-22 lead midway through the third quarter.
Buggey nailed a pair of 3-pointers during the run and finished with a team-high 12 points. Horel added 10 points in her final high school game.
Buggey’s back-to-back 3s about a minute apart midway through the third quarter turned a 22-19 deficit into a 25-22 lead. She scored 10 of her 12 points in the third quarter.
“It was so much fun,” Buggey said. “This is my first year playing in the playoffs, even though I’m a junior. My first year I was out with an ACL and 10th-grade year we didn’t make it. But it’s been a fun ride. … Whenever you’re out there, and you’re hitting them like that, and you see the scoreboard adding up and you’re only down by one or two, it gets you going. It was a lot of fun. It really was.”
But Portage got the last laugh, after the Mustangs’ shots finally started falling. Homer-Center’s zone defense had a lot to do with that.
“They were in that odd-front zone, and they have long kids,” Hudak said. “Every team we play is overall bigger than us, OK? When you have a team sitting back in that zone with their hands up, it makes it difficult on a team like us that doesn’t have great size overall. In saying that, we faced that all year and we made those perimeter shots. Tonight, it was a struggle for three quarters, having consistent outside shooting. Inside, it was difficult to get anything inside, too. They have some big kids in the middle.
“We weren’t the ones that had the pressure on us,” Horel said. “They were the ones who had all the pressure, and they were the No. 1 seed, and we’re what, the No. 8 seed, and we gave them probably one of the best games of the year. That’s what their coach said. We were with them, and then the fourth quarter we just kind of just slipped, but I’m proud of my team. They did so good. I wouldn’t take that back for anything.”