No one knows better than Paul VI girls basketball coach Lisa Steele how quickly a young team can blossom into a South Jersey power.
A former player herself who started four years on Highland Regional's championship teams of the early 2000s, Steele watched proudly as her youthful Eagles stunned previously unbeaten Cherokee 64-40 in an Olympic Conference showdown at home before a packed house Thursday night.
The triumph was a signature win for Paul VI, which improved to 21-2 overall and snapped a five-year losing streak to the powerful Chiefs (22-1), one of the state's top Group 4 programs this season.
The win was sparked offensively by sophomore Sara McShea (16 points), freshman Hannah Hidalgo (13), and senior Abaigeal Babore (11 points). Just as importantly, Steele's team benefitted from superb defensive efforts by Hidalgo and sophomore center Nile Miller, each of whom bottled up Cherokee standout center Alexa Therien (15 points) through most of the first three quarters.
"It's amazing watching what this team can accomplish -- and I'm not surprised because this team is built to excel in games like this," Steele noted. "We have a lot of young players, and it's nice to see them improving, and even better to know they'll be around for a while.
"I've been there as a player myself and I know how fast a talented group like this can put it all together."
Hidalgo, one of the state's top freshmen guards, set the tone in Paul Vi’s favor early with 6 points and 3 steals in the first quarter to give the Eagles a 19-9 lead. The Eagles stayed in the lead at halftime at 28-19, but Hidalgo was forced to sit toward the end of the third quarter and most of the fourth period with four personal fouls.
But if you thought Paul VI would surrender the lead with Hidalgo on the bench, think again. Entering the final period with a 41-33 advantage, Babore proved clutch at guard, firing in 9 of her 11 points in the fourth quarter to give the Eagles a commanding 58-36 lead. Paul VI outscored the visitors by a 23-7 margin in the final period to finish out in dominating fashion over a solid Cherokee team.
"We were excited at the chance to play them and it was great to get off to a fast start," said Hidalgo. "I was going crazy sitting on the bench in the second half, but we have so many good players who just stepped up when we needed them."
Cherokee's Therien was limited to 6 points in the first half after being blanketed on defense by the Eagles’ Miller and Hidalgo. She scored nine in the second half to finish with 15 points, but it was not enough to overcome the balanced Paul VI attack.
"We knew we had to get the job done defensively -- and it was important to get off to a good start," said Miller. "We felt like we were in control the whole way."