Mifflinburg’s coronation began with less than a minute to play Saturday.
With Danville’s concession, the Wildcats casually passed the ball while their fans’ applause and cheers washed over them.
There were maybe a dozen ticks left when the ball landed in Julia McArdle-Coe’s hands with a clear lane to the basket.
The sophomore’s enthusiasm took over and she drove to score, blissfully interrupting the clock-draining choreography.
Forgive McArdle-Coe and the Wildcats: They’re new to this district championship stuff.
Mifflinburg shrugged off a nine-point deficit after one quarter and played with the confidence of a team that hadn’t lost in a month.
The Wildcats built a lead, weathered Danville’s fourth-quarter comeback, and punctuated a 48-36 victory with a series of plays worthy of the District 4 Class AAA champion.
“I feel completely amazed right now,” said Sara Stauffer, who, with Jackie Beck, is one of two senior starters. “We worked so hard, and we just proved that we were supposed to be here.
“We came in being the underdogs, and our coach said we had nothing to lose but everything to gain. That’s how we played.”
The Wildcats won a total of six games the previous two seasons, with a low-water mark of 2-20 in 2011-12. With Stauffer’s battle-hardened skill and the beyond-their-years play of sophomores McArdle-Coe and Kayla Kline, they stunned top-seeded Danville for the program’s first district crown.
“To see these guys and how hard they’ve worked through the summer, the fall, the season — how hard they pushed through and picked each other up — it is great to see that they won,” said Mifflinburg fifth-year coach Kelly Griffith. “I am just so happy for all of them.”
Danville (21-4) lost the district title game for a fourth consecutive year. The Ironmen lost the previous three finals by a total of six points. Yesterday, they overcame a six-point deficit after three quarters to tie the score at 36 with 5:28 to play, only to watch Mifflinburg close with conviction.
“Sure I’m disappointed,” said Danville coach Steve Moser, whose team is 42-9 the last two seasons, “but it’s important that the girls remember everything they accomplished in getting to this point.”
Mifflinburg (20-5) will play Holy Redeemer, the District 2 third-place team, in the first round of states Saturday. Danville, which was without junior guard Sara Naessig who suffered a concussion in the semifinal, faces District 2 champion Scranton Prep, also Saturday.
“I missed her something fierce,” Moser said of Naessig.
The HAC-I champion Ironmen swept Mifflinburg during the regular season, winning by 12 most recently on Jan. 22. The Wildcats, though, hadn’t lost since Jan. 28 — a string of seven wins — and Danville’s 17-8 first quarter served as a reminder.
“We needed to buckle down and play better defense,” said Griffith. “I think we were nervous at the start, not relaxed and playing, and we just needed to chip away.”
Ironmen sophomore Amber Renz had nine points, four rebounds and two blocks in the first quarter, and Danville played great interior defense. The tide turned with a second-quarter Mifflinburg run, led by Kline asserting herself with the dribble penetration and the Wildcats winning on the boards.
“We knew we couldn’t get our heads down,” said Kline. “All of us as a team picked our defense up and that was what won us the game.”
Kline, twice a national Punt, Pass & Kick champion, scored half of her game-high 20 points in the second quarter as Mifflinburg erased its first-quarter deficit to lead at the half, 26-24.
“The first quarter we did everything we practiced,” said Moser. “We moved the ball; we penetrated — we knew we could get inside the zone — and all of a sudden we stopped.” Mifflinburg’s zone defense was terrific in the second half, holding Danville to 4-of-24 shooting, including a 1-for-8 clip in the third quarter.
“We went into the locker room like, ‘“Girls, let’s go! This is our chance!’” said McArdle-Coe, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds, “and we just took it.”
Danville tied it at 36 with an Alexandra Berg 3-pointer after a great baseline save by Paige Harris. Immediately, Harris plucked her sixth steal, but Renz’s breakaway layup rolled off the rim. Stauffer went the other way in a flash for the lead and the first of four straight buckets. Emily Stauffer dumped a pass to Emily Hess for a basket; Kline stole a cross-court pass and scored in transition; and Sara Stauffer fired a 25-foot bullet to Kline on a backdoor cut for a commanding 44-36 lead with 2:36 to play. Sara Stauffer finished with 15 points and seven boards.
“It just shows people that, just because you start at the bottom,” said McArdle-Coe, “it doesn’t mean you can’t get to the top.”