MANSFIELD - Ali Hillson nearly collapsed into Jason Dominick's arms as the Mansfield coach approached and embraced his gutty sophomore guard.
The comeback was complete, the game was won and for the first time, Hillson could relax. For the first time, she could take a well-earned rest.
Hillson played one of her best games and her teammates came alive in the second half Thursday at home as No. 2 Mansfield rallied past No. 7 East Juniata and won a hard-fought District 4 Class A quarterfinal, 42-35.
Hillson scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dealt five assists as Mansfield (20-3) earned a spot in next week's semifinals against Saturday's Bucktail at Northeast Bradford winner.
"I was getting real tired but coach said before the game when your legs give out, play with your heart.," Hillson said. "That's what I remembered and that's what I tried doing."
She did it well.
Hillson kept Mansfield in the game in the first half, scoring 14 of the team's 20 points and taking over in the second quarter as it trimmed a seven-point deficit to 22-20. When East Juniata (13-9) focused more on her in the second half, Hillson hurt it with her passing and different Tigers started hitting big baskets. Mansfield took a three-point lead after three quarters, extended it to 10 with 3:31 remaining and won its first playoff game since 2010 while earning its first semifinal appearance since that same season.
"Ali is huge. She's such a battler. She just competes," Dominick said. "The plays she comes up with sometimes are unbelievable and without her we're probably down 20 at the half. You can tell she works her tail off and puts in the time."
So do all her teammates and that has helped Mansfield win seven more games than a year ago, despite losing three starters who accounted for more than 60 percent of the team's scoring and rebounding. Mansfield won its 20th game for the first time since 2007 and is a win away from reaching its first district final since 2006.
The Tigers earned that milestone and opportunity the hard way against a tall and physical team. Kaitlyn Garverick (10 points, 10 rebounds) and Alysa Davey-Bostic (10 points, 6 rebounds) were huge in the second half and Mansfield took the lead for good when Sara Wolbert hit two free throws late in the third quarter to put it up 31-30.
The lead changed hands nine times in the third quarter but Mansfield never trailed in the fourth, holding East Juniata without a field goal for more than nine minutes at one point while going up 40-30. Davey-Bostic scored all 10 of her points in the second half and her 3-pointer early in the third gave Mansfield its first lead while seeming to ignite the offense.
"We always work hard to come back," Davey-Bostic said. "This is our game to win, that was our mindset. We just have our hearts set on winning districts right now."
Wolbert was huge off the bench, grabbing six rebounds and dealing two assists in the second half. She negated East Juniata's size inside and her two straight assists to Davey-Bostic and Garverick put Mansfield up 10.
Seniors Simone Lichty and Erin Dempsey were pivotal as well, igniting a stifling defense that allowed just five second-half field goals. Mansfield changed defenses, moved well and communicated while forcing East Juniata into shooting mostly contested 3-pointers.
"We had a better second half as a team," Hillson said. "We are up to the challenge and kept going hard. It was those little things that made the difference."
"We really battled to work our way back," Davey-Bostic said. "Sometimes it takes a while for us to get into our zone, but we just kept working hard."
East Juniata pulled within 40-34 after Caitlin Hoover hit a 3-pointer and sank a free throw but could get no closer. Mansfield beat the press as Garverick found Hillson who drove in for a layup that put Mansfield up 42-34 and basically clinched the win.
"I knew the spirit and the pride in what we do would eventually come through," Dominick said. "Eventually their inner drive started to show up."
EAST JUNIATA (35)
Maddie Trego 4 1-1 9, Caitlin Hoover 3 2-4 10, Shelley Gabel 2 0-2 4, Alana Hicks 0 0-0 0, Megan Graybill 1 0-0 3, Sam Lash 0 0-0 0, Elizabeth Weidner 1 0-0 2, Val Leonard 0 0-0 0, Kasi Horning 3 1-2 7. Totals 14 3-7 35.
Ali Hillson 6 5-6 18, Kaitlyn Garverick 5 0-0 10, Alysa Davey-Bostic 4 0-0 10, Simone Lichty 1 0-0 2, Erin Dempsey 0 0-0 0, Sara Wolbert 0 2-2 2. Totals 16 7-8 42.
E. Juniata10 12 8 5-35
Mansfield7 13 13 9-42
3-pointers: EJ 3 (Hoover 2, Graybill); Mansfield 3 (Davey-Bostic 2, Hillson).
Records: Mansfield 20-3. East Juniata 13-9.
Next Game: Mansfield vs. Northeast Bradford-Bucktail winner, TBA