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O'Hara takes control early, beats St. Mary's

With a roster of only eight players and without a senior, Cardinal O’Hara coach Nick O’Neil was nervous this would be the year that the girls basketball team’s streak atop the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association would end.

He said this year’s team being so young and minus the leadership from last season was challenged early on, but midway through the season after scoring a huge win over the host squad at the Elmira Tournament, the Hawks morphed into one of O’Neil’s best and hardworking teams.

O’Hara carried that second-half season momentum and continued its league dominance with a runaway 77-53 victory over St. Mary’s in the Monsignor Martin AA championship game Friday at Villa Maria College. It was the program’s seventh straight league title. The Hawks advanced to play Friday in the CHSAA State Tournament at Holy Trinity.

“These girls where they started the year and where they’re at now, it’s like night and day,” O’Neil said. “My girls have been playing outstanding the last month so I knew if we got up, we could put the pedal to [St. Mary’s], because offensively we’re playing really well and we always play good defense.”

Division I college recruits Amelia Strong and Aaliyah Parker poured in 39 points between the two juniors in a game O’Hara (21-4) never trailed. Strong, a forward who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, scored 14 of her 22 points in a first half in which she dominated under the basket. Parker finished with 17 points.

“It’s been hard work, communication and good team chemistry that’s been key,” Strong said. “There are no seniors on this team, so we’ve been able to grow together and to move forward and achieve a lot as a group.”

For St. Mary’s (17-8), sophomore point guard Shay Ciezki scored a team-high 20 points and netted her 1,000th point in the fourth quarter, knocking down one of her four 3-pointers. Ciezki was also named Monsignor Martin Player of the Year. Also, junior forward Ava Achtyl scored 15 points in the losing effort.

“To score 1,000 points in two years is amazing, it is a joy to watch and a gift to coach,” first-year St. Mary’s coach Anthony Ottomano said.

The two teams played a pair of tight games in the regular season but after St. Mary’s tied the game at six apiece early on, O’Hara ended the first quarter on a 15-4 run, including a half-court 3-pointer from Parker. O’Hara led 44-21 at halftime and never looked back.

“We wanted to try to get them down early and make them press and take threes,” O’Neil said. “The first couple of games they stayed with us and the game came down to the last quarter. We didn’t want that to happen this time.”

Ottomano said O’Hara shooting the ball well early in the game put his team in a bad spot defensively. He added the Hawks’ physical and quick play made for match-up problems. The first two games between the teams were decided by 62-47 and 65-51 scores.

“Our expectation coming in was much different. Our girls were comfortable and confident, but O’Hara was just good today,” he said. “I think the girls like playing in these kinds of games. They’re just tough on us because they’re super quick.”

Junior Alex Buckley and sophomore Courtney McClaney added nine points each for O’Hara. Buckley knocked down three 3-pointers.

“Coming in, we wanted to keep the energy high, play as a team – no hero basketball – and I think we executed that,” Buckley said. “We just like to keep that mindset that next year we don’t have anybody leaving, so we’ve been a really close team and we’re going to stay close.”

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