Cards clinch Div. I

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FOUNTAIN SPRINGS - A ticket to Martz Hall already punched for this week's Schuylkill League semifinals, Pine Grove coach Chris George still had a simple message for his team:

"You've gotta go in and take it."

Challenger North Schuylkill did not make "taking it" easy.

Ulimately, the message took hold for the Cardinals over the final quarter as Pine Grove clinched the Division I title with a 48-35 victory over the Spartans in a girls' basketball contest February 4.

The Cardinals (19-2, 11-0 D-I) held the Spartans without a field goal during a 9-minute, 25-second stretch that started in the third quarter and lasted until there were just eight seconds left in the game.

Prior to that stretch, North Schuylkill (17-3, 8-2) used a 9-2 spurt to lead 31-30 with 1:15 left in the third.

Becky Evans made sure George's pregame message was going to stick. The junior point guard sliced through the lane for a three-point play to put Pine Grove ahead to stay.

"When you're holding a lead the whole game, and they fought back and fought back and fought back and finally get over the hump, then Becky came right back and hit the and-one," George said. "I think that really stopped their momentum. You could feel all the momentum going their way. But for us to get that quick and-one, it really helped."

North Schuylkill struggled from there, turning the ball over five times over the game's final eight minutes and making just 1-of-5 from the floor.

The Spartans finished just 14-of-44 from the field and had 14 turnovers against the Cards' press.

"Give credit to Pine Grove. Their defense had us out of sorts again," North Schuylkill coach John Rizzo said. "Experienced, good basketball teams take care of the ball better. We did not take care of the ball tonight. We had some situations where the same players were making the same turnover over and over again."

Evans, who leads the league in scoring at 19.9 points per game, registered a game-high 21.

The Cardinals had plenty of trouble against the Spartans' defense, though. Pine Grove went just 13-of-42 from the floor. The offense settled down in the fourth quarter, and the Cardinals pulled away by connecting on 11-of-12 from the charity stripe down the stretch.

"Give North Schuylkill a lot of credit. That's probably the best half-court defense we've seen all year," George said. "They've been known all year for their full-court stuff, and we really did kind of expect for them to just kind of hunker down this time and play better half-court. They did a great job."

Evans and Co. were able to capitalize on North Schuylkill's aggressive play down the stretch, getting to the bucket for layups and drawing fouls.

"I feel like the first time we played them, we thought too much,'' Rizzo said of a 60-43 loss Jan. 11. "Tonight we just wanted to come out and defend. We thought we'd be better off like that.

"We were just a step too slow, our weakside help. I thought there were some opportunities if we would have stepped in, made some contact and took a charge. And, we didn't do that at all tonight. That's something we've got to work on; that's something we've got to get better at."

North Schuylkill was right there with the Cards through the first three quarters. The Spartans trailed 11-8 after one quarter and 25-22 at halftime.

Nadya Spotts' pull-up jumper and steal-and-score pulled the Spartans within 28-26 in the third. After Shannon Zimmerman's driving bucket for Pine Grove, Dominique Reinoehl put back a miss and scored off an assist from Lauren Damiter before Kayla Bolinsky gave the Spartans the lead with a free throw.

Evans provided the answer for the Cardinals with the three-point play that took the wind out of North Schuylkill's sails.

"From there, we really settled down a bit," George said. "We got back into our press a bit. When we were able to press tonight, obviously, we were able to force a lot of turnovers out of that. Even when we weren't forcing turnovers, we were able to force them to take shots in spots that I think they really weren't used to."

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