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St. Joseph saw an opportunity to make school history Tuesday night, and the door remained wide open with three minutes remaining in the Spartans' WPIAL semifinal game against Cornell.
Little by little it closed as Cornell seized some history instead.
With the teams tied in the final minutes, No. 2 Cornell forced St. Joseph into enough mistakes and pulled away for a 51-42 victory in a Class A semifinal at Fox Chapel.
Both teams were seeking their first trip to the WPIAL championship game, and Cornell (20-4) will play No. 1 Winchester Thurston (20-4) at 3 p.m. Friday at Petersen Events Center.
“It's really tough when you're this close to something you've never been to, but it gave us the fire to know we want to get to the next step,” St. Joseph coach Sally Ackerman said. “We've been trying for years to get past the one we just got past, so we're going to work as hard as we can to get to the next step.”
Cornell's victory didn't come easily, as the Raiders fell behind by double digits in the first half, built a seven-point lead by the end of the third quarter and needed to withstand St. Joseph's fourth-quarter rally.
The Raiders also needed to overcome their own free-throw shooting: They shot 5 of 19 from the line and missed the front end of a 1-and-1 three times in the final minute.
Jaelah Smith put Cornell up for good at 42-40 with a putback off a missed free throw, part of a 6-0 run that finally gave the Raiders enough breathing room.
“One second was like 10 minutes,” Cornell coach Shawn Urbano said. “I was saying, ‘Please.' My kids on the bench could sense we were going (to the championship), but as a coach (I'm saying) calm down, we still have 35 seconds left. I was just getting more excited and more excited.”
Cornell overcame its mistakes by forcing St. Joseph into a few of its own; the Raiders got turnovers on back-to-back possessions, and Nysia Miles blocked P.J. Nickoloff's 3-point attempt in the final minute with Cornell leading by six.
St. Joseph (17-8) finished with 22 turnovers.
“Their defense in the second half was very aggressive in stopping our shooting, and we made a couple drives and lost the ball,” Ackerman said. “But that's going to happen when the game and the speed is that much. There's nothing good or bad about it. That's basketball.”
No. 6 St. Joseph was making its first WPIAL semifinal appearance, while Cornell had reached the round for the second consecutive season.
The underdog Spartans seized control of the game in the first half, with their defense forcing 12 Cornell turnovers before halftime. A 15-1 run gave St. Joseph a 21-11 lead with inside five minutes remaining in the second quarter. Cornell whittled the advantage down to 27-24 at halftime as Miles hit a baseline jumper in the closing seconds of the half, and the Raiders' defense took control in the second half.
Switching to a box-and-one defense to slow St. Joseph's leading scorer Lizzy Celko, Cornell — which leads Class A in scoring defense, allowing 32.5 points per game — held the Spartans to one field goal and four points total in the third quarter. Celko finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds but didn't score in the second half while being guarded primarily by Cy'Moni Harrison.
“In the second half, they got a little better than we did,” Ackerman said. “Truthfully, games when you lose, they stink. But I couldn't ask for any more from them. They gave everything they could.”
St. Joseph opened the fourth quarter on a 9-2 run, tying the score at 40 on Chloe Kurpakus' fast-break layup with three minutes remaining. Miles was injured on the play, but she returned to make a crucial block on Nickoloff and hit three free throws.
Miles finished with a game-high 13 points, leading the way for the Raiders on a night when leading scorer Daeja Quick tallied nine points.
“Tonight Nysia stepped up, and I've said this from Day 1: I have a luxury of having two really good point guards,” Urbano said. “When you've got two, if one's not having a good day ... Nysia took over. That makes you really happy.”
Cornell also held a 43-30 rebounding advantage, getting 23 from Jaelah Smith and 14 from Patience Gipson.
“They controlled the boards,” Urbano said.
While Cornell advances to the WPIAL championship, St. Joseph awaits the start of the PIAA tournament March 10. The Spartans will be either the No. 3 or 4 seed from the WPIAL, depending on what Cornell does Friday.
“I think we're that competitive with them,” Ackerman said. “Throughout the game we proved that, and they also proved that. As we get through and see what happens in the states, this is what you're going to run into. But we can hang with them.”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.
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