By Joe Rhoades
Armstrong freshman guard Emma Paul (4) knocks down a three-pointer during the first quarter of the River Hawks' 66-60 overtime loss to Indiana on Thursday night. Paul scored a school-record 40 points in the game, but Armstrong (7-1) suffered its first loss of the 2021 season.
Kittanning, Pa. -- The ebbs and flows of a high school basketball season can be felt over the shortest of spans, and the Armstrong River Hawks experienced just that on Wednesday and Thursday.
After sweeping the season series against Fox Chapel on the road Wednesday, the team dropped its first contest of the year just 24 hours later in a 66-60 loss at Indiana in overtime.
The highs and lows can be detailed when you consider the Hawks had not beaten the Foxes in school history, so two wins in one season is momentous. On the other hand, the loss to Indiana snapped a seven-game winning streak, one that Kirk Lorigan’s club wasn’t ready to surrender quite yet.
“We knew coming in to the season that it wasn’t likely that a team would go undefeated in the section because one through six is so tight. From top to bottom, it is a conference that doesn't have too many holes. Even Kiski, who's currently in last [place] isn't someone the other section teams look past, and they battle" Lorigan said following the loss to Indiana. "We will never accept a loss. Did we think we were going to go undefeated? Probably not, but in the bottom of our hearts we were sure hoping. It is certainly better to lose one now than later in the learn when someone sneaks up on us and we're on the verge on beginning the playoffs."
As for the highs, Armstrong defeated Fox Chapel a night prior to their loss to the Little Indians, in what was another signature come-from-behind victory. After crawling out of a 9-2 hole to begin the game, Armstrong's many offensive weapons and defensive prowess stifled Fox Chapel and forced its all-section forward, Ellie Schwartzman, out of the game with five fouls. While the Foxes were without their best inside player, Armstrong's emerging forward, Kyla Fitzgerald took another step forward in her freshman campaign by garnering the High Top Sports/Sprankle's Neighborhood Market Player of the Game.
"I just tried to play defense right, keep my hands up -- and I know [Schwartzman] likes to use her body down low, so just wanted to do what I could without fouling her," Fitzgerald said after the win over Fox Chapel. "I think I'm getting more comfortable touching the ball. At first, I think I was a little nervous playing with the older girls, but our captain and senior Shae Clark does a good job of making me feel more comfortable."
The River Hawks defense swallowed up the Foxes in the fourth quarter to put a stamp on the victory after entering the final period with a slim 31-29 advantage. Lorigan's section-leading club outscored their nemesis 13-6 over the final eight minutes.
Despite the loss to Indiana, the game was not without its share of positives and history making performances. Freshman guard Emma Paul, shattered the single-game scoring record of 32 points set by Kenzie Lasher. The former high-water mark by Lasher coincidently took place at Indiana in 2018. Even with the sting of a loss, Paul's feat did not go unrecognized by her coach and teammates.
"Our players were obviously disappointed with the outcome, but they were proud and excited for Emma. a 40-point performance sets a school record and they way in which she did it was as impressive of a performance I've seen by someone in an Armstrong uniform," Lorigan said of his standout freshman. "She shot 15 of 26 from the floor and was 5 for 12 from three. It was a gutsy performance and I think we got another glimpse of how good she already is and how far ahead of the curve she is."
Now the Hawks will have a shot at redemption and another season sweep on Saturday as they welcome the Plum Mustangs in a boy/girl varsity double-header.
It's Armstrong's hope is that their stumble to Indiana can humble them and take pressure off the relatively young group as they head down the stretch run.
"They're going to see a lot of the same looks I would think that we say in our first matchup. They'll probably show a box-and-one on Emma, and we're prepared for that. They really were the first team to attack [Paul] and we expect them to do some things defensively in trying to contain [Paul] and keep her from getting hers -- they held her to seven points at their place," Lorigan said "Obviously we know what we need to do defensively in controlling Kennedie [Montue]. We've seen a lot of her over the years and we have to try and keep her under 20 points. In our games against Plum in the past, we've faired a lot better when we've held her under that mark. We know that they go as she goes and we believe we have the ability to do it twice."
Armstrong (7-1, 5-1) welcomes the Mustangs (5-4, 5-3) for a 1 p.m. tip that will be followed by the boys' varsity teams meeting up at 2:30 p.m. Both contests will air on High Top Sports Network.
To watch a complete re-broadcast of Armstrong's win against Fox Chapel, please click the link below:
To watch a complete re-broadcast of Armstrong's loss to Indiana, please click the link below: