MILTON-The book on Milton remains unfinished. However, it already is quite a story.
And it added another chapter Tuesday. A year after winning just six games and two months after starting 0-4, Milton is two wins from capturing a HAC-I championship. The theme remained the same last night too. Like it has so many times before, the gutty, resilient Black Panthers played their best under pressure, rallied in the fourth quarter and found a way to win.
Mackenna Miller made a game-changing steal and layup to spark a big run over the final five minutes and Emily Baker recorded a double-double as Milton edged determined Jersey Shore, 27-23. The Panthers (12-7, 10-2) remained a game ahead of Danville and Shamokin in the HAC-I and overcame a fourth-quarter deficit for a third straight time.
"It's a statement," said Baker, who had a game-high 12 points and 11 rebounds. "We were not picked to do well at all this season. It's a shock to people that we're even in districts."
Now they are on the verge of becoming champions. Tuesday's game was ugly from a shooting perspective and included a combined three first-half field goals. Still, it perfectly illustrated Milton's season in some ways. Whatever the situation, whatever the obstacles, this senior-laden, close-knit team can overcome. It did so for a 12th time in 15 games Tuesday, outscoring Jersey Shore 11-3 over the final five minutes.
The Bulldogs (7-10) also are one of the area's most improved teams and have three times as many wins as in the past three seasons combined. They lost two games to Milton by six combined points and used a 10-0 run between the third and fourth quarters to take a 20-16 lead.
Just when it seemed Milton was in serious trouble, it played its best basketball. Miller made a steal and layup to spark the game-winning run. Baker and Miller then hit back-to-back jumpers and the Panthers went ahead to stay with 3:10 remaining.
"We work together well as a team and we really started clicking in the fourth quarter," Baker said. "It just took a while to get there, unfortunately, but we got there."
A Courtney Smith free throw cut the deficit to 22-21, but Brooke Swartz hit a jumper and added a foul shot, putting Milton up four with 18 seconds remaining. Jersey Shore, though, kept fighting and Kayla Allen's long-range jumper made it 25-23 with six seconds left. Allen then nearly made a steal at midcourt on the ensuing inbounds pass but she collided with a Milton player and no foul was called, with the referee explaining it was a free ball.
Baker clinched the win with 1.9 seconds remaining, hitting both ends of a 1-and-1. It seemed a fitting end on Senior Night for a gutty team that went out in fitting fashion in its final home game.
"In the locker room (afterward) they said they didn't even realize we were down by four," Milton coach Aaron Slusser said. "I realized we were down four and one more we would have been in trouble because at that point I would not be too confident we'd score six points in the next few minutes. They made it interesting, but they didn't panic."
Jersey Shore nearly pulled the upset as Allen and Smith both played well. Allen scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds while Smith was a force in the second half. The senior forward had a hand in 10 straight points when Jersey Shore made its 10-0 run, scoring six points and dealing two assists. Smith scored seven of her nine points in the fourth quarter and grabbed nine rebounds.
Both teams had chances to take substantial first half leads but neither could make a shot. Seriously. Milton and Jersey Shore missed 30 straight shots until Allen's steal and layup ended the drought midway through the second quarter. The Panthers made only 1 of 22 first-half shots and that field goal did not come until two minutes remained when Miller scored on a putback.
And yet Milton still led 10-8 at halftime. It was not pretty, but Milton made it work. Since that slow start, it almost always has.
"They didn't panic and I've seen that a lot from them," Slusser said. "They go down big at Danville and they don't panic. We were down at halftime against Mifflinburg and they didn't panic. They just came out (Tuesday) and said this is what we have to do to finish this off."
JERSEY SHORE (23)
Kayla Allen 3 4-6 10, Courtney Smith 2 5-6 9, Sara Danley 0 0-0 0, Morgan Keller 0 0-0 0, Grace Naehu 1 0-0 2, Paige Packer 0 0-0 0, Erin Engle 0 0-0 0, Courtney Morlock 1 0-0 2. Totals 7 9-12 23.
Emily Baker 3 6-9 12, Mackenna Miller 3 0-2 6, Katelyn Gensel 0 2-4 2, Linea Brouse 0 2-2 2, Dana Kyle 1 0-0 2, Karissa Brown 0 0-0 0, Brooke Swartz 1 1-3 3. Totals 8 11-20 27.
Jersey Shore3 5 6 9-23
Milton5 5 6 11-27
Records: Milton 12-7, 10-2 HAC-I. Jersey Shore 7-10, 1-10.
JV Score: Milton 36-21.