Surging Franklin Regional girls sweep season series from Mars
The first time Franklin Regional played Mars, the Planets were ranked No. 2 in WPIAL Class 5A.
The Panthers went on the road and pulled off a head-turning upset.
A lot has changed since early January, and the narrative could be shifting to possibly reveal teams heading in different directions.
When the girls met again Monday night in Murrysville, Franklin Regional was the favorite and the fifth-ranked Panthers proved it, digging in late to post a 54-45 victory in Section 2.
“We were the first team in the section to beat Mars, but we didn’t brag about it,” Panthers senior guard Cali Konek said. “We kept going and went on to the next game. One game at a time. Tonight, we came out and played like we can.”
Senior forward Jordan Yaniga scored a game-high 20 points, and Konek added 19. The tandem combined for 21 points in the second half for Franklin Regional (12-4, 7-2), which has won 8 of 9 and improved to 6-1 at home.
The Panthers held the defending PIAA champion Planets to two field goals in the final 4 minutes, 3 seconds and closed the game with a 13-4 run after Mars (13-5, 6-4) tied it 41-41 on an and-1 by senior Tai Johnson, who scored a team-high 19, including 14 after halftime.
Mars turned the ball over a half-dozen times in the fourth after tightening the gap and struggled to get open looks.
Mars also lost to Armstrong, 29-28, and Gateway, 48-39, since the initial defeat against Franklin Regional on Jan. 3.
“We need our girls to be leaders, and you can’t dictate that,” Mars coach Dana Petruska said. “We need our upperclassmen to step up. You either have it or you don’t. It’s too late in the season to be looking for your identity. We were clicking for our first eight or nine games.”
After Johnson’s off-balance three-point play — Franklin Regional thought she was fouled well before the shot — tied it with 4:03 left, the Panthers got a pair of field goals from Yaniga — one on a feed from Konek, the other on a rim-rounding shooter’s roll — and made 9 of 10 free throws to seal it.
Yaniga scored the Panthers’ first 10 points in the fourth.
“We have been focusing on not panicking,” said Konek, a UNC Charlotte recruit who scored 26 against Mars the first time. “We’re showing we can be more calm under pressure.”
Mars had won 4 of 5. When it lost to Franklin Regional, 52-51, Yaniga hit a last-second shot.
This time, the Panthers coach felt his team earned it.
“To beat Mars twice is huge, but we got lucky up there,” Franklin Regional coach Anthony Kobus said. “We were up 14 and let it slip. We had to put in a bucket at the buzzer. Tonight, it was like a heavyweight fight. We were fortunate to go up four late, and then make our free throws. Our girls really have each other’s backs.”
Yaniga scored eight points in the first quarter to put the Panthers ahead, 14-8, after eight minutes.
Johnson scored on a layup and junior Bella Pelaia (12 points) hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one before Johnson connected for a 3 with 3:07 left in the second quarter, tying it, 18-18.
Sophomore Ellie Coffield, who scored 10, drove in for a layup to give the Planets a 20-18 advantage, which ended up being their final lead of the night, but Konek buried a 3 from the wing to put the Panthers back up by one.
Senior Courtney Giles finished a break with an assist from Yaniga to make it 23-20 at the half.
Senior Kaitlyn Carr’s 3 from the top of the key gave the Panthers’ a six-point lead in the third, but Mars rallied to trim it to 35-33 on a 3 from Pelaia.
“Overall, I think we have the better five (players),” Petruska said. “But (Franklin Regional) has the better chemistry.”
Franklin Regional finished 18 of 21 from the foul line.
The Panthers have a strong nonsection test Tuesday night at Latrobe, another team looking to make a name for itself in the 5A race. Franklin Regional is one game behind Gateway for first place. The Panthers have not won a section title since 1979.
Bill Beckner is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill at [email protected] or via Twitter @BillBeckner.