OTEGO _ Those four three-pointers senior Sarah Mannina hit before a big crowd at Unatego’s gym on Thursday night clearly played a big role in the Spartans’ victory.But it might have been two plays Mannina made on the defensive end that played an even bigger role in Unatego’s 54-50 Midstate Athletic Conference semifinal basketball victory over Harpursville.
Mannina drew two charges on Hornets standout Miranda Drummond. Those plays helped keep Drummond on Hapursville’s bench for long spans in the second, third and fourth quarters and eventually led to Drummond fouling out.
“Honestly, probably the charges (were bigger than the threes) because that took her out of her game and actually out of the game,” Mannina said of her plays against Drummond, widely regarded as the best player in the MAC. “That helped us a lot because then they really only have one huge offensive threat and they’re easier to defend.”
The Spartans (14-3) ended Harpursville’s four-year run as league champions. The victory also put Unatego in position to win its first MAC title.
The last time Unatego won a league title came in 1985, when the Spartans won the second of back-to-back Susquenango Association titles.
They can end that drought with a victory over Unadilla Valley at 2 p.m. Feb. 16 at Oneonta State in the MAC final.
“I’m happy for these girls,” said Unatego coach Greg Bonczkowski, who saw Bainbridge-Guilford beat his squads in consecutive MAC finals in 2006 and 2007. “I’ve worked with most of them for three or four years and this will be their first opportunity to play for a league championship. I’m just really pleased for them.”
Mannina’s classmate, Casey Manzanero, scored a team-high 20 points and hit three three-pointers in the second half to help the Spartans repel a Hornets rally.
“It’s really exciting. I know a girl for UV,” Manzanero said of Storm forward Amanda Off, who scored 22 points in UV’s 54-42 victory over visiting B-G in the other semifinal Thursday. “We made a goal to beat Harpursville, both of us, and we did. And we made a goal to both get to SUCO. Hopefully, they’re going there, too. I want to see them there because I know it will be a good game. It feels great.”
Unatego and UV met last week, with the Storm earning a 55-52 road victory.
But if the Spartans can put together a first half similar to the one it had against Harpursville on Thursday, they’ll be tough to handle in the final.
Using ball movement, screens and plenty of crisp cuts without the basketball, Unatego made 13 of its 27 shots in the first half en route to a 30-17 lead.
Ten of those baskets came on layups against Harpursville’s man-to-man defense.
“We knew that they were going to come out and play aggressive man-to-man defense,” Bonczkowski said. “That’s what they’re known for and we wanted to attack the rim, get the ball to the basket and get some easy looks early. If you make those, then the basket seems to get a little bigger from the perimeter.”
Unatego scored the game’s first six points, all on layups. Manzanero scored in transition off the opening tip, Marissa Woodard hit a layup off a pass from Mannina and Manzanero converted on a spin move near the basket off another pass from Mannina to make it 6-0 1 minute, 28 seconds into play.
An 8-0 run to end the first quarter gave the Spartans a 17-7 lead. That spurt included a layup by Manzanero off a pass from Kayla Talbot, an inside basket from Woodard off a pass from Robin Foster, and a steal and left-handed finish by Mannina.
Back-to-back baskets by sophomore Cassidy Newman late in the second quarter extended the Spartans’ lead to 27-15. Newman scored on a putback and then received a hit-ahead pass from Mannina and scored in transition with 40 seconds left in the first half.
“It’s always nice to have somebody come off the bench and give you points and production,” Bonczkowski said of Newman, who scored eight points on 4-for-6 shooting from the floor. “For her to come in and get us points and offensive rebounds and play good solid defense and get some defensive rebounds was a big plus for us.”
Mannina capped the half by hitting a three-pointer off the dribble from right of the key five seconds before halftime.
“We got a lot of open looks,” Mannina said. “It was good we made most of them. I’m usually not the best shooter, but I kept shooting and I made them.”
Mannina stepped in front of a driving Drummond with 5:42 left in the third quarter to draw the Harpursville senior’s fourth foul. Drummond wouldn’t return until 5:50 remained in the fourth quarter.
But with Savannah Murray scoring six of her team-high 20 points in the third quarter, Harpursville trimmed its deficit to 43-32 entering the fourth quarter.
The Hornets switched to a 2-3 zone for most of the second half. Mannina and Manzanero hit three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Manzanero’s came with 4:25 left and extended Unatego’s lead to 51-40.
The Spartans still led, 53-42, when Manzanero hit a runner in the lane with 2:55 to play.
But shaky free throw shooting down the stretch allowed Harpursville to make it interesting.
The Hornets had a chance to make it a one-possession game when Marci Ritter stepped to the line with 16 seconds left. Ritter hit the first and missed the second to make it 54-50.
Talbot then missed the front end of a one-and-one for Unatego with 14 seconds left.
But Murray missed a runner in the lane with eight seconds left and Mannina dribbled out the remaining time.
“It’s definitely a good thing to be in the championship,” Mannina said.
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.