READING -- York Catholic girls' basketball coach Kevin Bankos swears there's nothing "magical" about how his teams perennially find themselves in the PIAA Class AA state finals.
But that's getting harder and harder to believe.
For the seventh time in the past eight years, the Fighting Irish will find themselves playing in the opening game of the two-day state championship weekend. York Catholic used a 12-3 run early in the third quarter to take control en route to a 45-28 victory over District 1 champion St. Basil Academy Tuesday night at the Geigle Complex.
That victory sends the Irish into the finals at noon Friday opposite District 7 champion Bishop Canevin. The Crusaders downed defending AA state champ Seton-La Salle 41-36 in the other semifinal Tuesday.
"I've had a lot of coaches ask me and tell me the same things, and it's not magic," Bankos said. "We believe that if you focus on your kids' strengths and weaknesses, and run something that minimizes their weaknesses and enhances their strengths, you're going to be OK."
Defense has always been a calling card for any Bankos team and it was on full display Tuesday. The Irish held the Panthers to single digits in scoring in three of the four periods.
"It came down to our defense," Bankos said. "Our defense had to win the game. Our pressure had to get to them."
St. Basil finished with 20 turnovers, in large part because of a 1-2-2 press that the Irish employed throughout the contest.
York Catholic also decided to employ a switching man-to-man defense that prevented the Panthers from finding openings after getting a screen from a teammate. St. Basil is a team that thrives on the 3-point shot, but found few open chances, despite making five 3-pointers for the night.
"I think what coach stressed before the game was switching," York Catholic senior Morgan Klunk said. "That allowed us to get out and take away their shot opportunities."
St. Basil converted on just 11-of-44 shots (25 percent) on the night. They didn't help themselves by getting to the free throw line, either. The Panthers made just 1-of-5 free throw attempts, while the Irish finished 12-of-15 (80 percent) at the line.
After a slow start offensively, the Irish kicked it into high gear in the second half. Guard Zaenna Echevarria netted six of her 10 points during that 12-3 run to start the third quarter. Klunk, who finished with a game-high 14 points, tallied four points during the pivotal span that broke the game open.
"Coach Bankos stressed for us to get a stop early in the third quarter and then for us to get a score," Klunk said. "And we did, and that kind of took the momentum away from them."
Sophomores Hannah Laslo and Marissa Ressler each chipped in nine points. Laslo, who grabbed 17 rebounds in Friday's quarterfinal victory over Pine Grove, pulled down a game-high nine in the semifinals.
Now the Irish will prepare for what Bankos loves to call a "hardware game" Friday. The Irish are 2-3 in PIAA Class AA finals under Bankos, having won their first two (2007, 2008) before falling in their last three appearances (2009, 2010, 2012). York Catholic also won the 2006 state championship under former coach Andy Bria, who is now a broadcaster for WOYK 1350 AM.
Winning a state title has been a driving force for Klunk, who is one of the few decorated Irish standouts over recent years to not have a state championship gold medal in her collection.
"I know that Coach Bankos and the other coaches have rings and I always ask to see their rings," Klunk said. "It would be pretty cool to have one of my own."
It may not hurt the Irish that the championship contest will be held at the Giant Center in Hershey. The finals are back in Chocolatetown after a six-year hiatus, when they were held at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College.
York Catholic won the last Class AA title game held in Hershey back in 2006 and Bankos is happy that the title games have returned there.
"I know that it's ironic, when I take time to think about it as I will tonight a little bit, how this thing has come full circle," he said. "We started this run at Hershey and we're back at Hershey again."
The Irish have an impressive winning streak going at the Giant Center, which also hosts the District 3 championships. York Catholic has won the past eight district championships. Add in the 2006 title contest to that and the Irish haven't lost at the Giant Center over the past nine seasons.
There is a word to describe that -- "magical."
-- Reach Ryan Vander sloot at sports@yorkdis patch.com.
York Catholic (45)
Lehr 0 0-0 0, York 1 0-0 2, McNamara 0 0-0 0 0 0-0 0, Jones 0 0-0 0, Chesko 0 1-2 1, Ressler 2 4-4 9, Carroll 0 0-0 0, Klunk 5 4-4 14, Demonda 0 0-0 0,Salter 0 0-0 0,Echevarria 5 0-0 10, Keffer 0 0-1 0, Laslo 3 3-4 9. Totals: 16 12-15 45. Three-point field goals: Ressler.
St. Basil Academy (28)
Greenberg 1 0-1 2, McGowan 0 0-0 0, Mancini 0 0-0 0, Fuegel 1 0-1 2, Wilson 2 1-2 7, Lapkiewicz 2 0-0 4, Frost 0 0-0 0, Weiss 1 0-1 2, Skalski 2 0-0 5, Sloan 0 0-0 0, Napierkoki 0 0-0 0. Totals: 11 1-5 28. Three-point field goals: Wilson 2, Skalski, Lapkiewicz, Donahue.
York Catholic 7 12 16 10 -- 45 St. Basil 7 6 10 5 -- 28