In the three games that the Shade and Berlin Brothersvalley girls have clashed this season, the Panthers have come out on top of their WestPAC South foes twice.
On Saturday, in the latest meeting of the fierce competitors - this one in a District 5 Class A semifinal at Shanksville-Stonycreek High School - Shade edged the Mountaineers 44-43 to earn a berth in Wednesday’s championship game.
The Panthers (21-4) will be opposite Southern Fulton, a 47-36 winner over Conemaugh Township in the other semifinal on Saturday.
“This just means the world to my girls,” Shade coach Andy Muha said about his team’s return to the title game for the first time since 2009. “You don’t play Berlin three times and Portage twice and have the record we have without a lot of hard work. Berlin is a quality team.
“We are not blessed with the tallest players, but we are blessed with five girls that care about each other and work their tails off.”
Berlin took a 43-42 lead with three minutes to play and had opportunities to increase the advantage twice in the final minute, but missed the front end of a pair of 1 and 1’s.
After a Shade timeout with 25 seconds left, the Mountaineers fouled sophomore Emma Spinelli.
The sophomore guard calmly fired both in to give the Panthers the lead. The Shade defense did the rest, holding off several shots by Berlin with Brittany Berkey grabbing the last rebound to secure the victory.
“That pressure that we played in for our last 10 games helped us in the pressure situation there,” Muha said. “I told my girls we were going to get a break and we did get the ball back and it worked out.”
Spinelli finished with a team-high 18 points and is 10 points away from the 1,000-point milestone.
Lexie Rapsky added 16 points while Berkey and Alexis Meck each had 12 rebounds for Shade.
“We just wanted this and we deserved it,” Rapsky said. “We worked together all the time and always try to make each other do better. It means everything to get a chance to play for the championship. It’s so unbelievable.”
Shelby Coughenour had the double-double for Berlin with a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds while Gina Trulick supplied eight points.
“I don’t think we made the plays that we needed at the end to win the game and they did,” Berlin coach Rachel Prosser said.
“Shade plays hard and they did enough to win. I think it could have gone either way.
“It’s disappointing because of the ability that we have, but I’m still waiting for us to put it all together.”
The physical game was a close one the entire way.
Shade held a 10-8 advantage after the first quarter, but the Mountaineers roared back in the second, fueled by 10 of Coughenour’s points including two 3-pointers.
Berlin outscored the Panthers 14-9 for a 22-19 lead at the intermission.
The third quarter featured two ties and two lead changes with Berlin extending its lead to the largest of the game, seven points, 35-28, heading into the fourth.
In the final frame, Spinelli scored seven of her points and Rapsky had nine of hers, including a 3-pointer to pull Shade within one, 41-40, with 3:44 to play.
“I was so nervous, but after I hit them I was so happy,” Rapsky said about her shots.
A tie and two lead changes later, the Panthers’ faithful were cheering the outcome.
Berlin (20-4) will play Conemaugh Township in a Class A consolation game on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the Pitt-Johnstown Sports Center. The Panthers title game with Southern Fulton is the third game of the evening following the boys Class AA championship between Conemaugh Township and Northern Bedford.
Cory Isenberg is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/CoryIsenbergTD.