---- — By Jon Gerardi
The Daily Item
NORTHUMBERLAND -- Down under her own basket, Sunbury Christian's Tiffany Billings held the ball and looked to throw it in. The Eagles were up two points after Northumberland Christian rallied late to cut a deficit, and they needed a big play to swing the momentum.
Billings quickly sent the ball to Torri Erdman, who caught it and immediately put up a shot. She not only made it but was fouled and sank the free throw to make it a five-point game.
From there, Sunbury Christian kept at least a three-point lead in the final 1:17 and defeated Northumberland Christian, 39-26, in an ACAA semifinal at Northumberland Christian's Bingaman Activity Center.
For the Eagles, it will be their fifth straight appearance in the ACAA championship game, which tips at 1 p.m. today against Meadowbrook Christian. The Eagles have lost each of the last four appearances.
After a first half in which Sunbury Christian shot just 1-of-19 from the field, coach John Jones shifted his personnel, which paid off. In the second half, the Eagles ended up shooting 9 for 20.
"We actually moved Torri Erdman inside and she's one of our better passers," Jones said. "So getting her in the middle and being able to push the ball and get the shot, that was the difference."
Sunbury Christian came out big to start the third quarter, extending a second-quarter run through the break for a 9-0 run that built an eight-point lead, 15-7. The Eagles kept Northumberland Christian's offense from doing a lot of damage, allowing the Warriors to get within only five points in the third.
Northumberland Christian's go-to player Alyssa Wesner struggled in the first half, scoring two points on a layup with 3:10 left in the second quarter. She sparked in the second half however, ending the game with a team-high 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
"She's their leading scorer and rebounder and she's the key to their team," Jones said. "If you can hold her down, you have a better chance to win, obviously."
Northumberland Christian responded in the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run that brought the score to within three points after Sunbury Christian had forged an 11-point lead, the only double-digit lead of the night.
"(I) just told them that we have to make sure we match up with our person," Jones said. "We changed our defense. I just said, 'You need to make sure that you get out on them because they're going to be shooting threes.' Get out on your girl, and make sure they help each other."
Northumberland Christian had two big mistakes late in the game that could have shifted the momentum back in its favor.
Trailing 29-27 with 1:37 left in the fourth, the Warriors' Calista Ulmer (eight points) had a steal in Sunbury Christian's end and started a break. However, the Warriors lost control of the ball near the baseline and turned it over. With nearly 30 seconds left, Bethany Severn (seven rebounds, four steals) swiped the ball to start a break, but they couldn't keep control and turned over the ball.
The miscues (two of the teams' combined 49 turnovers) kept the Warriors from tying the game or possibly taking a lead. The Warriors never led in the second half after holding a one-point lead in the second quarter off Wesner's basket, 7-6.
Northumberland Christian's defense, coordinated by head coach Bill Milbrand, targeted Sunbury Christian leading scorer and top perimeter threat, Abby Daddario (nine points, four rebounds, four steals), throughout the game and kept the Eagles' lone senior from hitting any shots from the field.
While Daddario was held in check, she helped spread Northumberland Christian's defense, allowing Erdman to score a team-high 16 points and Faith Gingrich to add six. Gingirch also corralled a team-high eight rebounds.
"(Daddario) can hit the three at any time and she's key to our offense," Jones said. "Teams will key on her and try to prevent her (from scoring), but what she does is she draws the defense out, which is a key thing for us working the ball inside to Faith or Tiffany."