HERSHEY — As Susquehannock sophomore Jaden Walker stepped to the free throw line, all she could think about was all the free throws she shot at practice over the season.
With the clock reading 1.9 seconds and the game tied at 42-42 with Harrisburg, Walker needed some calming reassurance for the biggest shots of her life. When she watched the first one rattle around the hoop and fall, it calmed her. The second one, which came after the Cougars called timeout to try and ice her, was nothing but net.
Then, after watching Harrisburg's last-ditch halfcourt heave at the buzzer clank off the backboard, only then could she fully relax and realize that she just won the Warriors the District 3 5-A championship, 44-42, at Hershey's Giant Center.
"I have to make it," Walker admitted was her thought before her first free throw attempt. "We worked so hard. I had to do it for my coach, my teammates, everyone that helped throughout the season. I just had to make it. ...We shoot so many free throws at practice, so I just pictured that it was just like practice."
The win for No. 2 Susquehannock (23-3) was the program's first district title, after finishing as runners-up in 2013 and 2014.
Playing from behind: The Warriors played from behind pretty much the entire game, with every big shot they hit answered by the top-seeded Cougars (21-4). It wasn't until Walker hit a driving layup with a little more than two minutes to play that Susuquehannock had a lead in the second half, but that was quickly erased by a made jumper from Harrisburg to tie the game at 42-42.
"In the second half, it seemed like every time we had a chance to get a one-, two-, or three-point lead, they'd come back and we'd make a defensive mistake," Warriors' head coach Dave Schreiner said.
Susquehannock called timeout after the game got knotted up at 42-42 and decided to hold the ball for the final minute and 37 seconds, before Walker was fouled with less than two seconds to play.
Offensive struggles: After both teams got off to good starts in the first quarter, with the Cougars holding a small 14-13 advantage, things went south offensively for the Warriors.
They hit just two shots in the entire second quarter and were outscored by seven in the frame to trail by eight at the break. It should've been only five, but the refs incorrectly awarded Harrisburg a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, despite the ball still being in Dajahnae Brannon's hands when time expired.
Still, even facing adversity, Schreiner said he knew his team was capable of making a comeback in the second half, not because of the pep talk he gave his players, but because of the message they told him in the locker room.
"I think the kids gave the first message when I walked in and that was, they did not believe that we were not in the game and couldn't win," Schreiner said. "I think that was the first key."
The players responded to their own feelings, slowly chipping away at the deficit over the course of the final two quarters. Susquehannock cut the Cougars' lead to just six by the end of the third quarter and then used a strong start to the fourth to pull to within one possession on a number of instances, before Walker's layup got it in front.
Overall, the Warriors outscored Harrisburg, 26-16, in the second half, after being held to just 18 points of their own in the first half and allowing 26.
"We knew it was going to be hard because they were a very good team," Walker said. "So, we just had to push through it."
Junior Taylor Tannura led Susquehannock in scoring, pouring in 13, while Walker finished with 12, including the team's final four points, the biggest of the game.
Ahmya Woodyard and Brannon each had 16 points to lead the Cougars.
The Warriors will enter the state tournament as the top seed out of District 3 and will face the sixth place team out of District 1, the loser of Radnor vs. W.C. Henderson. They'll also do so starting just one senior and four underclassmen.
"We have some good basketball players," Schreiner said. "Our young players, Jaden, Jayla (Galbreath) and then Taylor is a very good guard, Anna (Mahan) has played really well this year and then Tyler (Williams) has had a career season. We play together very well and share the basketball."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org
SUSQUEHANNOCK 44, HARRISBURG 42
Susquehannock scoring: Tanura 4 4-6 13, Walker 3 5-6 12, Galbreath 2 2-2 8, Williams 2 2-2 6, Stone 1 0-0 3, Mahan 1 0-2 2.
3-pointers: Galbreath (2), Tanura, Walker.
Totals: 13 13-18 44
Harrisburg scoring: Merritt 0 1-2 1, McCollugh 1 2-5 5, Woodyard 6 2-2 16, Wright 2 0-0 4, Walker-Cowan 0 0-0 0, Brannon 7 1-2 16.
3-pointers: Woodyard (2), McCollugh, Brannon.
Totals: 16 6-11 42