By MARTIN COOPER
Special to Tri County
LEOLA - They believed.
This time it wasn't hope. After losing tight games in 2003 and 2004, they truly believed this was the year they could slay mighty Delone Catholic.
St. Pius X had lost to the Squirettes twice in the second round of the state playoffs as Delone won the first two of its three straight state championships.
The Winged Lions knew the Squirettes - led by Georgetown-bound guard Meredith Cox, a 2,000-point scorer - had their sights set on a fourth consecutive title. But those 10 losses this season intimated Delone might be a little more vulnerable.
"Every game we stayed pretty close," said St. Pius senior guard Ryan Mooney. "We really wanted it this year. We came out and played as hard as we could. We gave them a run."
Yes, the Lions threw another scare into the defending champs. But, for the third time in the last four years, St. Pius dropped a seven-point decision to Delone, falling 53-46 in a second-round PIAA Class AA state playoff game last Tuesday night at Conestoga Valley High School.
The Lions, who finished the season at 18-11, led by two points at the half and trailed by only three after three quarters.
But St. Pius failed to score in the fourth period until 39 seconds remained in the game, allowing the Squirettes (21-10) to pull away and into the state quarterfinals.
"We honestly felt we could beat them this year," said St. Pius coach Joe Masleh. "I don't know if the way we finished the first half hurt us. Maybe we thought it would be easy. We just did not come to play in the fourth quarter."
The Lions bolted to a 7-2 advantage, but Delone roared back to take a 9-7 lead before the teams settled into a 15-15 deadlock after the first period.
The Squirettes unleashed a 10-0 burst to move ahead, 25-17. But sophomore center Jamie Norris came off the bench to score eight straight points to forge a 27-27 tie. Then freshman Melissa Mansur sped to the basket for a layup with four seconds remaining to give St. Pius a 29-27 halftime lead.
"We had a heck of a first half," said Masleh. "We were down eight, came back and took the lead at the half. At halftime I told them, 'They're going to come back. They're a quality team.' But we kind of went through the motions. We didn't push the ball. Was it anything they were doing? No. They weren't pressing us. We were content walking the ball up."
The Squirettes knew they had to put the brakes on St. Pius' transition game.
"The only thing we said at halftime was, 'You can't let them run the floor. You can't let them get transition baskets,'" said Delone coach Gerry Eckenrode. "We did a much better job with that the second half."
In the third quarter, Cox showed how she's been able to lead the Squirettes to three state titles. The 5-foot-11 senior, who shot 9-for-16 for the game, drilled her first five shots of the third quarter, including a pair of treys, to stake Delone to a 44-34 advantage.
"That was her show there for awhile," said Eckenrode. "I was thinking about giving her a break. She was so hot I couldn't take her out. She was unconscious for awhile."
After Cox, who finished with 24 points, scored her 12th point of the period for that 44-34 spread, the Lions went on a run of their own.
Freshman Chrissy Esbensen knocked down a 17-footer, sophomore Regan Mooney drained a three-pointer and Mansur (eight rebounds) put back an offensive rebound to make it 44-41 after three quarters.
"I have faith in our team," said senior Rayne Reber, who led St. Pius with 13 points. "A lot of times we get down, but we battle back. I have confidence no matter what the score is we can battle back. It just didn't happen this time.
"It was a game of runs. Whoever could keep the momentum up and keep the runs going was going to win. We had nothing to answer with in the second half with some of their runs."
In the fourth quarter, Michelle Schleich (10 points) scored back-to-back layups off feeds from Felice Herman (12 rebounds, eight points) to make it 48-41 and Caitlyn Munchel canned three free throws for a 51-41 spread.
"We had a lot of intensity," said Ryan Mooney. "We wanted to keep it up and build on our (halftime) lead. We knew they were going to come out strong. We wanted to match their intensity.
"I think we had some mental lapses on defense. We weren't executing our offense. We weren't running it well. Our whole team had lapses."
Against the three-time defending state champs, too many lapses will send you home for the year.
The Lions didn't score their first points of the fourth quarter until Reber converted two free throws with 39 seconds left in the game. She dropped in a three-pointer eight seconds later, but it was too little, too late.
"Out of the three times we played them, this time was the most likely win for us," said Reber. "If we had just played four solid quarters, the outcome of the game would have been different."