---- — By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
POTTSVILLE -- Lisa Varano wasn't looking toward the future so much as paying tribute to present.
When asked about next season's prospects following Mount Carmel's state playoff loss Tuesday, the Red Tornadoes coach said, "After what this team put together this year, I'll never say never."
Varano's girls played as though they never graduated three key seniors from a 27-1 team, including a pair of 1,000-point scorers. The Tornadoes, albeit with a few more losses, went about replicating last season's "team for the ages," and they might have if not for an untimely cold spell and some clutch Pine Grove foul shooting.
Mount Carmel lost a late third-quarter lead and then went more than five minutes without scoring, as the Cardinals took control and salted away the game by hitting 13 of 19 fourth-quarter free throws.
With the 50-43 win at Martz Hall, the District 11 runners-up advance to the PIAA Class AA quarterfinals Friday against District 3 champion York Catholic, a 50-39 winner over District 2 champ Dunmore. Pine Grove (24-4) last played in the state quarters in 2008.
Mount Carmel, which lost to York Catholic in last year's quarterfinals, finished 23-5.
"It's not disappointing at all," said Varano. "Nobody figured this team was going to be here. They exceeded everbody's expectations. I'm proud of every one of them."
The Tornadoes got out to an uneven start, trailed 10-4 after three minutes, and then roared back to take a 23-20 lead to halftime behind 13 of junior guard Ali Varano's 15 points.
"Certainly in that first and second quarter it started having the feel of, man, it just wasn't going to go our way," said Pine Grove coach Chris George. "I thought they really played fearless in that first half."
The Cardinals did a better job containing the quicksilver Varano in the second half. She scored five first-half baskets by taking the ball to the hole off the dribble, and added a sixth early in the third period.
"We watched it on film and you keep telling them and telling them, 'She's quick as lightning ...'" George said. "We didn't adjust to her speed until, well, it took almost until the second half. Even in the third quarter she got past us a couple times.
"She's a great player."
Tornadoes senior post Christina Perles, coming off a 30-point outburst in the first round, picked up the scoring slack with nine third-quarter points. She hit a lefty hook in the lane and banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing in the final 1:27 of the third, but those points were the last Mount Carmel scored until Isabella Stellar drained a trey with 3 minutes left.
In the interim, Pine Grove senior Shannon Zimmerman scored 12 consecutive points, staking the Cardinals to a 40-34 lead. The 5-foot-10 Zimmerman and two similarly tall seniors, the 5-10 Steffi Sampson and 5-9 Lauren Thompson, combined for 20 rebounds and limited the Tornadoes opportunities for second-chance points.
The Tornadoes shot 7-for-23 in the second half and had just five offensive rebounds and no points off putbacks.
"It was tough underneath there," said Lisa Varano. "We were battling for rebounds, but they were long. Our girls sometimes had position they just weren't able to poke it away."
Zimmerman scored seven of her game-high 18 points from the foul line in the fourth quarter, and the Cardinals made 9 of 12 to close out the game after Stellar's 3-pointer cut Mount Carmel's deficit to 41-37.
The Tornadoes held Pine Grove scoring leader Becky Evans to 13 points, six less than her average and four shy of 1,000 for her career.
"We wanted to limit Becky's points, and we did that. We hung with them for three quarters, and then had some breakdowns," said Lisa Varano. "Their size got to us (and) we just couldn't buy a basket. Sometimes that happens."