By Michael Boytim
EBENSBURG — Bellwood-Antis freshman Leigha Clapper spent the first two months of the high school basketball season figuratively doggy paddling in the shallow end of the pool.
Clapper often led the Lady Blue Devils in scoring during junior varsity games, but Bellwood-Antis coach Jim Swaney said her offense just wasn’t translating to the varsity level yet.
She had a breakout game in a win over Williamsburg on Feb. 1 with five 3-pointers and 17 points and entered B-A’s starting lineup soon after that game.
Tuesday night, she took a dive into the deep end and excelled in the biggest game of her career with a game-high 23 points as Bellwood-Antis, the third-place team out of District 6, eliminated Homer-Center, the District 6 champion, 68-64, in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals at Central Cambria High School.
“I think what you saw tonight was what we have noticed in the gym the last month,” Bellwood-Antis coach Jim Swaney said. “Leigha Clapper has come of age. She’s a player. She gives us another ball-handling threat out there, and she’s really developed into being a tough kid — which I’m not so sure she wasn’t at the start of the year, but she’s really developed that. For a large portion of the game, she was the best player on the floor.”
Bellwood-Antis took a 17-point lead early in the third quarter on a Clapper layup, but as it did when it rallied from nine down at the half to beat Bishop McCort for the District 6 title, Homer-Center showed the ability to fight back.
The Lady Wildcats cut the Bellwood lead to 52-49 on a Macy Sardone basket midway through the fourth quarter and had the large crowd and all the momentum turning in their direction.
That’s when Clapper calmly responded with a 3-pointer to double Bellwood’s lead with 3:08 to play.
“This was the craziest game we have played in this year,” Bellwood-Antis junior Chelsea McCaulsky said. “But I think as young as we are, we handled it really well. Our sophomores and freshmen really stepped up. Leigha Clapper, she’s my cousin, and she had the best game of her life. She puts a ton of work in, and we’re so happy for her.”
Clapper followed with two free throws, and Lydia Worthing scored to make it 59-49, but Homer-Center had one last run stored up.
Marlee Kochman made four free throws, and after Clapper hit two more of her own, Ayannah Elliott made a 3-pointer that brought the Lady Wildcats within five points with 1:54 to play.
Clapper answered with her fourth 3-pointer of the game 14 seconds later.
“She’s had a couple games like that since (the Williamsburg game),” Swaney said. “She was successful, and that’s led to more confidence in herself. I just think you can see it on the floor now. She believes that she’s an offensive threat and going to score every time.”
Homer-Center got a three-point play from Alaina Fabin with 1:22 left on a play that Bellwood’s Jaidyn McCracken picked up her fifth foul. Kochman hit a 3-pointer a few seconds later, and it was suddenly a two-point game with 1:06 left.
That’s when McCaulsky, who had been held in check for the majority of the game due to being the focal point of the Homer-Center defense, called for the ball and made four straight free throws in the final minute to seal the game.
“My adrenaline was up, but I’m meant to do that,” McCaulsky said. “It’s my job to go out and finish. Because of the defense they were playing, I couldn’t score in other ways, so I had to find a way to help my team win.”
Sardone led the Lady Wildcats with 23 points, and Kochman added 18 points. Molly Kosmack had 10 points and nine rebounds.
“In the district championship, I just told them it’s 9-0, and today I said it was 12-0,” Homer-Center coach Nick Moore said. “We played poorly in the first half, but I said we would get it straightened out. We put a little run together and turned it into a two-point deficit. I really thought we were in good shape, but then (Clapper) hit that big 3, and the game was over.”
Worthing scored 20 points and pulled in 14 rebounds for Bellwood-Antis and made some school history in the process.
“When Lyd plays like this, we’re a tough out,” Swaney said. “She broke Sakeria Haralson’s single-season rebound mark for us. For a 5-foot-10-inch kid, that’s pretty nice. That’s a really nice record for her to have because of the player that had it.”
Following the win, Clapper mentioned the Williamsburg game as the turning point of her season.
“In that game, I went out and made all of my 3s,” Clapper said. “I felt pretty confident after that, and ever since then I have been confident in my shooting. I’m having so much fun. I love playing. My teammates have made me feel so good, and I’m just having so much fun.”
Bellwood-Antis will take on WPIAL champion Neshannock on Friday in the PIAA semifinals with a trip to the state championship on the line. Neshannock defeated Shenango, 51-17, on Tuesday in a game it led, 19-0, after one quarter.
“I would love to go play at Hershey,” Clapper said. “Ever since I watched Bellwood win the two state championships, I have always wanted to play in one.”
With the victory, the Lady Blue Devils have now won 15 straight PIAA playoff games dating back to the 2018 season.
“It feels really good,” Swaney said. “We’d like to make it 17.”
BELLWOOD-ANTIS (68): McCaulsky 3 4-4 10, McCracken 4 2-3 11, Worthing 9 2-4 20, Hammond 1 0-0 2, Clapper 7 5-7 23, Partner 1 0-0 2, Norton 0 0-0 0. Totals — 25 13-18 68.
HOMER-CENTER (64): Sharp 0 0-0 0, Elliott 2 0-0 6, Kochman 5 7-8 18, Sardone 9 2-4 23, Kosmack 4 2-4 10, Fabin 3 1-1 7, Cutshall 0 0-0 0, Kerr 0 0-0 0. Totals — 23 12-17 64.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Bellwood-Antis 11 22 15 20 — 68
Homer-Center 9 12 15 28 — 64
3-point goals: Bellwood-Antis 4 (Clapper 4); Homer-Center 6 (Sardone 3, Elliott 2, Kochman).
Records: Bellwood-Antis (24-6); Homer-Center (25-5).
Officials: Clark Adelman, Jack McDougal, Keith Redfoot.