COAL TOWNSHIP - Sometimes, it takes a group of talented basketball players a while to find out about themselves and come together as a team.

It appears that is what has taken place for the Mount Carmel Area girls, and the timing could not be better.

Friday, in the opening round of the PIAA Class AA Tournament, the Red Tornadoes turned up the defensive intensity in the third quarter and found some offensive help for leading scorer Christina Perles in pulling away from a two-point halftime lead for an 80-70 victory over Wilkes-Barre GAR, the No. 3 team from District 2, at Shamokin High.

Up next for the three-time District 4 champion Tornadoes (23-4) is a showdown with one-time Schuylkill League foe Pine Grove. Friday, the District 11 runner-up Cardinals defeated Imhotep Charter 49-37.

Although GAR (13-11) was clearly undermaned with just seven players, including two that fouled out, the Grenadiers played with confidence in a first half that had seven lead changes and six ties. Trailing by as many as six points in the second quarter, GAR drew even at 33-33 on a field goal by Brea Seabrook, who finished with 27 points.

Perles then gave the Tornadoes the lead for good at 35-33 with 51 seconds left in the half, capping an excellent first-half shooting performance. In the half, the senior forward made 8-of-9 shots and scored 19 of the 30 points she scored in three quarters to nearly double her scoring average of 16.8 points per game.

In spite of that scoring performance, the Tornadoes

were unable to mount a consistent offense, committing 12 of their 20 turnovers. Obviously, someone else was needed to step up as Ana Raybuck had with 15 points and 17 rebounds in the 66-43 victory over Southern Columbia in the district final.

This time the someone was junior guard Ali Varano who matched the 11 points Perles scored in the third quarter as the Tornadoes outscored GAR 29-12 for a 64-45 lead that settled the issue. Even more impressive than the 24-6 run that closed the quarter, after GAR had pulled to within 40-39 on a field goal by Marie Skrepenak, was how the Tornadoes turned up the defensive pressure.

"We allowed them to hang around in the first half with our turnovers, and let's not kid ourselves, they are very athletic," Mount Carmel coach Lisa Varano said. "When a team believes it can win, it's going to play hard, but then we got the turnovers in the second half."

In the decisive third quarter, the Tornaodes had an 11-1 advantage in turnovers and limited GAR to just six shots. Perles and Varano, who finished with 24 points, combined to make 8-of-15 shots.

"We weren't very happy about the way we played in the fist half, but we came out in the second half and were determined to play better defense," Ali Varano said. "It was too much back and forth in the first half, and that was because we just weren't playing good defense.

"It doesn't matter how many points you score or who scores if you don't play together on defense. We knew what we could do in the second half, and we knew someone would step up.

"This time, it just happened to be me, but we've got other players who can do the same thing. We're that kind of a team."

And there is no better time of the season for players to come together as a team.

Game Summary

GAR (70) - Mosier 3 2-2 8, Spence 4 0-0 8, Leco 2 0-0 6, Seabrook 11 5-10 27, Skrepenak 6 4-6 16, Quinn 2 0-0 5, Nealy 0 0-0 0. Totals 28 11-22 70.

MOUNT CARMEL (80) - Horning 1 0-0 3, Varano 8 8-11 24, Perles 12 6-9 30, Stellar 3 0-1 6, Raybuck 4 0-0 8, Winhofer 2 2-2 7, Hood 1 0-0 2, Montgomery 0 0-0 0, Klinger 0 0-0 0, Parker 0 0-0 0, Dunkel 0 0-0 0. Totals 31 16-23 80.

3-point FGs: Leco 2, Quinn; Horning, Winhofer