MORRISTOWN - For the second consecutive season, Bridgeport has stunned the Division IV girls' basketball sectional tournament field in the opening round.
Thursday night at Union Local High School, the Bulldogs (10-11) knocked off favored Beallsville (15-9) by a 36-33 count to advance to the co-sectional final next Wednesday, back at the same facility.
Last season, Bridgeport upended St. John Central in the postseason opener.
On Wednesday, Rob Zitzelsberger's young squad will meet River (11-10) which ousted St. John Central (12-9) by a 47-38 margin in the nightcap.
In the opener, Bridgeport reeled off the first 10 points of the second half to take a lead it never relinquished.
''I told the girls in practice Wednesday that someone was going to be a hero,'' Zitzelsberger said. ''We knew that they (Beallsville) would try and take away Nicole (Smolenak), but everyone stepped up. Everyone did what they were supposed to do. It was a total team effort in every sense of the word.''
Deadlocked at 17-17 at halftime, the Bulldogs started the third quarter on the prowl as Tiffany Heckathorn, the team's lone senior who lost a contact lens early in the first half, drained a 3-pointer. Brittany Higgenbotham then banked home two more points and Keri Renzler, making her second varsity start, knocked down back-to-back buckets, the first being a trey and the second giving the designated visitors a commanding, 27-17, advantage with 3:18 on the clock.
''Keri hit two big shots there,'' Zitzelsberger noted of his 5-foot-5 freshman. ''She struggled early on, but she kept at it.''
The Blue Devils, who struggled down the stretch and finished the season with a trio of setbacks, misfired on their first seven shots in the third quarter and didn't connect until Mikaela Headley rolled one around the rim that dropped.
''We didn't shoot the ball very well at all,'' Beallsville coach Rick Jarrett said. ''We were cold the entire night.''
Indeed they were. The Big Blue only tickled the twine on 11 of its 55 shots.
''I really don't know what to say,'' Jarrett added. ''We couldn't make anything and it seemed like everything they (Bridgeport) threw up went in.''
Not exactly as the Bulldogs were a mere 12 of 41 from the floor, but cashed in seven 3-pointers.
''We didn't shoot the ball very well again, but we're in the co-finals,'' Zitzelsberger said with a huge smile.
Nicole Smolenak led all scorers with a dozen points, one more than Heckathorn. They combined for five of the shots made from behind the arc. Renzler had eight points and as many boards.
Julie Bilyeu paced Beallsville with a double-double. The 6-0 senior scored 10 points and pulled down a game-high 13 boards.
Bridgeport led 30-23 after three quarters, but Beallsville didn't roll over. The Blue Devils slowly, but surely, sliced into the deficit, making it 36-33 with 25.9 ticks remaining on a Allie Campbell 3-pointer.
Then, after Bridgeport missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 4.7 seconds left, Beallsville quickly pushed the ball upcourt, but Kaylee Gallaher's chance at tying it bounced off the rim as the final buzzer sounded.
Cassidy McCullough netted eight of her team-high 15 points in the opening quarter as the Pilots held a 15-10 lead.
''Cassidy really got us going,'' River head coach Rick Isaly said. ''She's a really good player who hustles all the time.''
River extended its lead to 27-18 at the half and 41-25 after three before St. John Central made a run.
''We went through the motions for three quarters,'' veteran St. John Central coach Robert "Bubba" Kapral said. ''We changed up our defense and went to a fullcourt press which got us a couple of baskets.''
The Irish pulled to within nine twice, but could get no closer.
''This is a good win for us,'' Isaly said.
Aiding McCullough in double figures was Laken Ramsay with 10 points. Emilee Weaver and Leslie Young evenly divided 14. McCullough completed her double-double with 13 rebounds as the Pilots claimed a 40-34 edge off the glass.
Rosa Young capped her career with a team-high 15 points and five steals. Kristen Russell chipped in seven points and seven rebounds.
St. John Central was also guilty of 18 turnovers, five more than River.
''We said going into the game that we had to do two things,'' Kapral added. ''That was get some rebounds, which we didn't do a good job of, and take care of the basketball, which we didn't do either.''
Bridgeport and River have met twice this season, with the Pilots winning both times. Their game will tip at approximately 8 p.m., following the Shadyside-Barnesville tussle at 6 p.m..