ADAMS TWP — Talent and belief can take a team a long way.
In 2018, they combined to carry the Mars girls basketball team the distance.
The Planets rebounded from a WPIAL Class 5A semifinal loss, reeling off five straight victories in the PIAA tournament to capture the program's first-ever state championship with a 36-33 decision over Archbishop Wood in Hershey March 28.
That performance was voted as the Butler Eagle's Sports Story of the Year.
“I'll always remember how we came together as a team and played team basketball,” said Lauren Wasylson, a senior swing player last year now playing at Xavier University. “We were able to read each other on offense and defense and that was the key to everything.”
The Planets' season began with a few bumps in the road. Star junior guard Tai Johnson missed the first five games with a leg injury and Mars got off to a modest 2-3 start.
Sparked by Johnson's return to the lineup, Mars won its next seven games and finished the regular season 17-5 and shared the Section 4 title with rival Hampton.
But after a pair of WPIAL playoff wins, the Planets encountered a nemesis in the district semifinals in Oakland Catholic. The Eagles had defeated Mars in the district and state playoffs in 2017 and again frustrated the Planets, handing them a 48-44 defeat Feb. 28 at North Hills Middle School.
That could have taken the air out of Mars' balloon. The Planets had clinched a spot in the state playoffs, but how long of a run could they make?
“Not getting the chance to play for a WPIAL championship was devastating,” Wasylson said. “We had two days off before coming back to practice and I remember telling the girls, 'We still have another shot. Let's get back to what we do well.'”
Mars had a week and a half off before opening PIAA play against the City League's Obama Academy. Maybe it was rust, but for whatever reason, the Planets played a poor first half and trailed 18-16 at the break.
“We talked about it at halftime, got everyone where they needed to be emotionally and mentally,” said Mars coach Dana Petruska. “We also made some adjustments in our game plan.”
Mars woke up in the second half and hammered the Eagles 44-15 over the final two quarters in a 60-33 victory.
What followed was Mars' first run to the state final since 1977. Victories over Thomas Jefferson (61-53), Gateway (50-38) and Archbishop Carroll (52-39) punched the team's ticket to Hershey.
Johnson had averaged 17.6 points through her first 20 games of the season, but reached another gear in the state playoffs. She averaged 24.5 points in the four contests entering the championship, leading the team in scoring in all of those games.
“Tai had played well when she came back from her injury, but she was still cautious about her leg,” said Petruska. “By the time we got to the state playoffs, it was healed. She was confident and played up to her potential.”
But despite Johnson's hot streak and a solid team defense that had held seven playoff opponents to an average of less than 41 points per game, the Planets were branded as heavy underdogs against Archbishop Wood.
The Vikings, owners of five state titles, had won the two previous state crowns and had played in the final in eight of the previous nine seasons.
Petruska, however, was confident her team would perform well. It stemmed from the confidence the Planets were playing with as well as the time spent in preparation for the final.
“Once our kids knew what they had to do, I knew we could handle it,” she said. “I truly believed in them.
“We just needed to give ourselves a chance. Stay close and hopefully, make a few plays at the end.”
That was exactly how the game played out.
The Vikings led for most of the game, but were never able to pull away. With the game tied at 33, Wood had possession with less than 30 seconds remaining. Johnson knew what the Vikings were attempting to do.
“They were going to hold the ball for the last shot,” she said. “I knew I had to make a defensive play and I think it caught them off-guard.”
With less than 10 seconds left, Johnson reached for a Viking pass near midcourt and made the steal. She laid in two points and made a subsequent free throw at the other end with 4.2 seconds left.
Wood's final desperation heave fell harmlessly to the court and the Planets had earned a state championship and the history that came with it.
Following the game, Mars players, coaches and fans celebrated on the court. The net was cut down and the PIAA trophy was passed around, the ultimate prize for a team that never stopped believing.
“I just remember grabbing that trophy and raising it,” Wasylson said. “I hugged Tai and said, 'We did it! We came all this way and we did it!'”
“We went on the journey together,” Johnson said of the team atmosphere that permeated the postseason run. “I'm very grateful for that.”
Petruska believes her team capitalized on its tag of underdog.
“I don't think they (Vikings) gave us a second thought,” she said. “They took us lightly.”
“Wood had so much success winning state titles, they didn't have the chip on their shoulder like we did,” said Wasylson.
The win had other contributors. Aside from Johnson, there was sophomore forward Bella Pelaia, who led all scorers with 14 points. Sophomore forward Mara Fuller, who entered the game early in the fourth quarter after Wasylson fouled out, held her own on defense. She, along with Alek Johnson and Ellie Coffield, each scored clutch points in the game.
As for Wasylson, who averaged over 17 points per game during the season, her view of the closing moments came from the bench. Though she was held to four points, her defense helped keep Wood within striking distance earlier in the game.
Very few players get to close their career with a state title, let alone one with so much drama. Wasylson takes none of it for granted.
“Being part of a state championship was an unbelievable feeling,” she said. “Those are memories that will stay with us forever.”