HERSHEY — Tai Johnson’s offense headlined Mars’ run to the state championship game.
Wednesday night, she turned in a defensive play that will live on in Planet lore.
With Mars and Archbishop Wood tied at 33 in the closing seconds of the PIAA Class 5A championship game, the Vikings had the ball and seemingly, the game’s outcome in their hands.
“Tai knew they were going to stall the ball or draw a foul,” said Planets’ coach Dana Petruska. “She knew what she had to do.”
Johnson lunged for a Viking pass at midcourt, made the steal and turned it into a conventional 3-point play at the other end with 4.2 seconds left. The effort accounted for the final points in a 36-33 victory at the Giant Center that gave Mars its first-ever state championship in girls basketball.
“I didn’t want to foul, but we applied pressure because we didn’t want to give up anything easy,” said Johnson, who had three steals and six rebounds in the game. “I anticipated the pass and went for the steal.
“Mars has been waiting for this for a long time,” added Johnson. “This feels amazing.”
The Vikings (22-8) got off a desperation shot before the buzzer, but it fell well short and Mars players stormed the court.
The Planets had taken their first lead of the game when Johnson’s trey gave them a 31-30 edge with 2:19 to go. A basket from Bella Pelaia made it 33-30, but Lindsay Tretter’s 3-pointer pulled the Vikings even with 1:04 left.
Mars missed a shot at the other end. Wood rebounded and called a timeout with 40 seconds left.
“I wasn’t expecting a turnover there,” said Vikings’ coach Mike McDonald of the end of the game. “I keep thinking back to the game. Maybe I could’ve called a timeout here or there, drawn up something better. Mars is very good, but we left a lot on the table tonight with (missed) layups and free throws.”
Wood scored 12 points in the first quarter, then managed just seven points in each of the last three quarters. For the game, they shot just 11-of-43 from the field. But the Vikings are used to playing low-scoring games in this building. They won state titles here the last two years by scores of 34-26 and 46-29. They carried much clout into Wednesday’s game with five state titles in the last eight years.
It was obvious Mars (24-6) was the underdog.
“Our girls needed to believe. They needed something to believe in,” said Petruska, who offered this quote to the team prior to the game: “Fate whispered to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm. The warrior whispered back, ‘I am the storm.’”
The Planets then went out and rained all over Wood’s parade.
“I think they came in a bit too cocky,” Mars senior forward Lauren Wasylson said of the Vikings. “We knew we could pull this off. This feels so good.”
Wasylson, who averaged more than 17 points per game during the season, was held to four points before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.
“They were face-guarding me all game and I couldn’t get open looks,” she said, clutching the state championship trophy and fighting tears of joy. “Rebounding and getting to loose balls, that became my game today.
“I’m so proud of Tai,” added Wasylson, who, along with fellow seniors Nichole Sommers, Daria Hockenberry and Rachel Bobko, ends her high school career as a state champion. “She’s a helluva player.”
Pelaia, a sophomore forward, led the Planets with 14 points. Mars received valuable minutes from two reserves, freshman guard Ellie Coffield and sophomore forward Mara Fuller.
Petruska began coaching Mars’ varsity team in the mid-1980s. After 10 years away from the program, she returned three years ago.
“When I was a young coach, I wanted this (state title) so bad,” she said. “I’m a competitor and hate to lose, but I now tell the players that I can’t want it more than they do. They wanted it tonight.”