Penns Manor fell into Neshannock’s trap — and couldn’t get out Monday night.

The Lady Lancers’ pressure defense kept the Lady Comets at bay in the second half as Neshannock rallied for a 39-36 overtime victory in a PIAA Class 2A semifinal.

“It feels good to win,” Neshannock’s Mairan Haggerty said. “We’re really excited.”

Neshannock (19-2) meets Mount Carmel, a 52-33 winner over Mahanoy Area, for the state title Thursday at noon at Hershey’s Giant Center.

“Other than the birth of my daughter, this is the best feeling in the world,” Neshannock veteran coach Luann Grybowski said. “We’ve gone through so much adversity. These kids just don’t ever give in. They continue to work. I can’t say enough. I wanted it so badly for them because they play so hard.”

The Lady Lancers found themselves in an early hole against the Lady Comets (18-7). The visitors held a 15-5 lead after the first and carried a 25-14 edge into halftime.

That’s when Neshannock decided to get back to what it does best — play pressure defense.

“My hat’s off to (Penns Manor) because they were the toughest team we’ve played all year, hands down. They have a little bit of everything; they can handle the ball; they have two really good players,” Grybowski said. “I just took a gamble in the second half and went with a trap and tried to keep them extended a little bit so they couldn’t get the regular looks they’re used to or run any back screens like the do normally.”

The plan worked. After Penns Manor’s lead peaked at 13 points, 29-16, with 4:14 left in the third, Neshannock shut the door the rest of the quarter and forced six turnovers in the final minutes. The Lady Lancers’ offense finally kicked into gear then, too, as the teams closed the stanza with a 13-0 run.

“I think we were nervous in the first half. We knew this team was good and we’d have to bring our all. I think we were just overthinking things,” Neshannock’s Neleh Nogay said. “It was great to break out. Whenever the team gets some momentum like that, we just keep flowing. I told them that we have to get up and celebrate the little things just to create some momentum.”

After Megan Pallerino swished a pair of free throws, Haggerty provided a spark with a 3-pointer. She added two more from downtown and Addi Watts scored off a turnover to tie the game at 29-all at the buzzer.

“We were not doing well on defense, so we needed to step it up and we did. We hit a couple big shots in the second half,” Haggerty said. “Once I make one, I get more confident and shoot more.”

Pallerino’s bucket 47 seconds into the fourth gave the Lady Lancers their first lead, 31-29. 

“It was really, really awesome to finally catch them. We knew we could do it,” Watts said. “It’s amazing to win. I was getting nervous for a while. Down by 13 — that’s crazy. We just don’t give up.”

The teams traded buckets until Penns Manor tied it at 36-all with 4:15 left in regulation. It stayed that way as neither team managed to dent the scoreboard. The Lady Lancers had the ball with 55.1 seconds on the clock, but turned it over with 2.6 seconds remaining.

In overtime, Watts swished one of two free throws to give Neshannock a 37-36 lead with 2:47 to go. The Lady Lancers went to the line two more times, but came up empty. After the second miss, Penns Manor had possession and held on for a game-winning shot. However, Neshannock’s defense held strong and only allowed a long jump shot that rimmed out. Nogay swished two free throws with 1.7 seconds left and the Lady Comets’ desperation 3-pointer from well beyond half court dangerously clanged off the iron at the buzzer.

“This is amazing. I can’t believe it,” Nogay said. “In the beginning of the game, I was getting a little doubtful. I told the team it’d be a great comeback story and it was.”

After the first half, Neshannock only allowed 11 points.

“Our defense, when we need it to be, is really solid,” Watts said. “I think everybody was focused.”

Haggerty led the way with 13 points. Pallerino and Nogay both finished with eight. Aaralyn Nogay added seven and Watts had three for the Lady Lancers, who played only five girls.

“They did a lot of good defensively. I’ve told them time and time again that defense wins championships,” Grybowski said. “I am just so proud of the kids.”

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Joe Sager is a former full-time sports writer for the New Castle News and currently freelances for the News and other Western Pennsylvania newspapers.

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