Note: This article originally appeared in the Mirror on Wednesday, March 20, 1996.
By Neil Rudel
INDIANA — In case a reminder was need on just what separates the Altoona Area High School girls basketball dynasty from the rest of the west, reinforcement came Tuesday night.
It’s called heart.
As in Art.
The Lady Lions clinched their seventh trip to the PIAA finals with an incredible, refuse-to-lose 56-55 comeback victory over Woodland Hills — a finish surpassed in Altoona’s rich basketball history only by Cory Gehret’s midcourt shot that punched the Mountain Lions’ ticket to the 1981 western final.
“Unbelievable,’’ Jill Humbertson, who made the winning basket with six seconds left, said.
“My legs are still shaking,’’ teammate Kim Stetter said outside the Altoona locker room in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Field House, more than 30 minutes after the roaring celebration upstairs had subsided.
Even Art Taneyhill, the most successful high school basketball coach in Blair County sports history and one of the short-list legends on the state level, could not remember any of his previous 564 games with the Lady Lions ending this dramatically.
It was as satisfying a victory as the 470 he’s had, even including last year’s late western final comeback against Penn Hills, because of its significance and because it comes in a season when he may be doing the best coaching job of his storied 20-year career.
Altoona lost five Division I players from last year’s PIAA champion.
“This one is a little different because no one gave us much chance to repeat,’’ he said. “I expected to maybe get a game or two out there (PIAA playoffs) because I really felt Hollidaysburg should have beaten us with all the players they had back.’’
But Taneyhill did his typical motivational job before the two teams met Jan. 23 at the Altoona Fieldhouse and the Lady Lions set the tone for the season by whipping Hollidaysburg, 76-56. The Lady Tigers regrouped to blow out Altoona Feb. 14 at Hollidaysburg, 68-38, but when it counted most, Altoona won the district title, 55-41.
“I changed my mind on how far we could go after the first Hollidaysburg game,’’ he said.
But you get the feeling that even if Hollidaysburg had beaten Altoona three times that Taneyhill and the Lady Lions would have been waiting around the next corner.
Altoona has that kind of belief in Taneyhill and in each other. Always has.
“The kids deserve all the credit,’’ he said.
“He deserves 99 percent of the credit,’’ Humbertson said.
The difference in Altoona and just about everybody else is the Lady Lions show up expecting to win. The rest of the teams are usually hoping.
Another difference is Taneyhill has long prided himself on having five players who can score, one reason he doesn’t cultivate one go-to player who dominates the headlines.
This year, the senior cornerstones are point guard Courtney Kaup and Humbertson. The two combined for 26 points against Woodland Hills, but Kaup created unnecessary adversity via foul trouble. As usual, Altoona overcame.
Deanna Jubeck, one of the region’s top finishers, added 13 pointers. Stetter hit a monster 3. Michelle Curran and Heather Mielnik provided perfect weak-side presences opposite Humbertson. Reserve Tehia Perretta hit a big basket late and cool sophomore Tracy Tyler, with two key free throws and two big assists, was the night’s unsung hero.
The combination of balance and confidence once again lifted Altoona just when it seemed doomed, even when Woodland Hills held a 54-50 lead, with the ball at midcourt, and 26 seconds left.
Woodland Hills will look at the tape and see some missed free throws and a couple of key late turnovers.
And it will know for the next time: If you want to beat Altoona, if you want to beat Taneyhill, there is precious little margin for error.
The rest of the west that lives in Altoona’s rear-view mirror, Penn Hills and Upper St. Clair and Oakland Catholic and North Allegheny and Hollidaysburg and State College, knows all too well.