After his team could score just two points in the fourth quarter and lost on a late 3-pointer to Marvin Ridge on Jan. 18, Charlotte Catholic girls basketball coach Bobby Conrad knew just what to say.
“We had a bad loss last week and I told the girls, ‘Everything you want is still in front of you,’” he said. “We just need to keep doing what we do and we can get everything we’ve wanted.”
That starts with a Southern Carolinas championship, and the Cougars beat Piedmont by 10 points on Jan. 22 to get a step closer.
But standing in a way of their title was Cuthbertson, a team riding a 16-game win streak and holding a perfect 7-0 mark in league play, one game up on Catholic’s 6-1 record.
When the two teams squared off on Jan. 25 at Cuthbertson, Conrad and his staff pulled off another smart move.
The Cougars employed a full-court pressure trap the got the Cavs off balance early. That, combined with a four-guard look Conrad had used before but not all that much, led to a 15-3 run in the second quarter that turned a 7-7 game into a 24-10 Charlotte Catholic lead.
“We haven’t played four guards a lot this year. We’ve done it a couple times we’ve done it for the whole game so obviously we’ll have to do it more,” Conrad said with a chuckle. “It changed the pace, it gave us some burst and it opened up some space for us where we were struggling.
“From the start we made up our minds to get some pressure on them. We knew that they were really good, but we thought if we could defend with pressure we might have some success. I thought in the first half we did a great job.”
The shot the opened up the biggest lead of the game for either team came from Dane Bertolina, the terrific junior guard for the Cougars who leads the team in points (15.3), steals (3.6) and assists (2.5) while also averaging nearly five rebounds per game.
Cuthbertson had her in a box-and-one type defense with one defender constantly draped on her. But, with the Cougars up 20-10, she shook her defender off a screen and buried a 3-pointer while drawing a foul.
“It was hard because they were guarding me tight,” Bertolina said of the 4-point play. “I get my teammates to set screens for me and that gets me able to create space for myself and to get my shot off. I saw the opportunity, but I have confidence every time I release a shot that it’s going in. I felt confident, I let it go and her hand tipped my arm. It went in and it was awesome.”
Cuthbertson came out on a 7-0 run, but Bertolina would offer yet another dagger. With the Cavs charging, she took an NBA-range, heavily contested 3-pointer and swished it as the third quarter horn sounded to put the Cougars up 37-29.
Bertolina, who recently committed to Appalachian State, finished with 17 points, three rebounds, three steals and three assists.
But the Cavs began going inside more in the fourth quarter and eventually tied the score at 43 with under a minute to play.
The Cavs fouled Clara Flatau, who made one of two free throws, but sent the Cougars home with a win and a first-place tie in the conference.
“We made some big plays and stayed on the attack in the second half, but we missed some free throws and turned the ball over some,” Conrad said. “They had some mismatches inside that they took advantage of and I think they settled down a little bit, but I’m proud of how we fought back.
“That was a big win for us. We were really solid for 30 minutes, but I think one of the hardest things to do is to lose a lead and still find a way to win.”
Flatau ended up with 14 points and five rebounds while Telfair Epperson provided a spark off the bench with nine points.
The Cougars (13-5, 7-1 in conference) plays Weddington, Sun Valley and Monroe before closing with Cuthbertson (Feb. 12) and at Marvin Ridge (Feb. 15) in a revenge game to close the regular season.
“This win brings us a lot more confidence,” Bertolina said. “We lost to Marvin in a tough game for us, but we had confidence we could go in that way play hard and play tough.”