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Senior moments: Pena overcomes illness to propel CK to Federation ‘A’ finals

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GLENS FALLS, N.Y. -- Jael Pena was suffering from a sinus infection and the cold temperature inside the Glens Falls Civic Center didn't exactly help. The Christ the King girls' basketball team came out almost as cold, but as soon as the third quarter hit, Pena knew that a loss meant her Royals career would be over.

Her sore throat and stuffy nose didn't matter.

Pena, a senior and one of only two Christ the King players to compete in its last state Federation Class AA championship, scored 10 of her season-high 23 points in the third quarter to lead the Royals to a 65-50 win against Curtis in the Federation 'A' semifinals Friday afternoon.

"Once the second half started, I didn't feel (sick) anymore," Pena said.

Christ the King went on a 21-2 run in the third to open up a 49-31 lead after a Tahira Johnson basket with 5 seconds left. At one point, Pena scored eight straight points. She clearly wasn't ready for her high-school career to end.

"She was amazing," said Johnson, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "She's a senior, so she's just going out there and giving her all."

Two years ago, Pena and fellow senior Melissa Wysocki were in uniform for Christ the King when the Royals played Murry Bergtraum, led by Epiphanny Prince, in the state Federation Class AA title game. Tina Charles and Lorin Dixon, who are now at the University of Connecticut, and Sky Lindsay, now playing for St. John's, were the stars for CK that day.

Last year was the first time in 17 years the Royals were not in Glens Falls and this is their first time not playing in the highest classification.

"I just remember we beat Bergtraum and it felt great beating that team," Pena said of the 2006 final.

But if Christ the King beats Franklin Academy (Malone, N.Y.) in the 'A' final tomorrow at 12:15 p.m., it will very much be Pena's championship. When CK lost to Molloy in the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens Diocesan championship game three weeks ago, it was Pena who helped refocus her team for the CHSAA state Class A playoffs and now the Federation 'A' tournament.

"She's been the leader most of the year," coach Bob Mackey said. "She's been the backbone of the team for most of the season. There's no doubt she's doing it now."

Pena, a Harlem native, was integral in the Catholic state playoffs, too. The 5-foot-5 point guard scored seven of her 13 points in the fourth quarter in Christ the King's 51-46 win against Holy Trinity in the CHSAA Class A state championship game two weeks ago at Hofstra. That performance not only helped the team, but her college options, as well. Providence coaches were at the game and liked what they saw. Pena already has an offer from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and interest from New Hampshire.

Curtis (Staten Island), which beat John Bowne in the PSAL Class A championship game to get here, was led by senior Michelle Clay's 15 points. The Warriors' star 6-foot-2 junior center Victoria Macaulay had 12 points, but left the game due to a knee injury with 4:43 left in the third quarter.

Christ the King's blue-chip freshman Bria Smith had nine points on 4-of-15 shooting and classmate Nia Oden had two points in limited minutes. The first ninth-graders to play varsity at CK since 1998 "looked like freshmen," Mackey said.

Good thing they had a senior to fall back on.

"She's just been a leader for everyone," junior Geleisa George said of Pena. "She lets us know what we're doing wrong."

Notes: Jill Cook, Christ the King's longtime assistant coach, was unable to make the game in Glens Falls. She was on a family trip in Florida and weather delayed her flight, Mackey said...The Academy of American Studies girls' basketball team, fresh off a PSAL Class B championship last Saturday, will play Briarcliff in the Federation 'B' title game Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Briarcliff (Westchester), which was led by Maggie Blair's 18 points, beat Fieldston (Bronx), 64-37, in the semifinals Friday morning. Juan Faya and the American Studies players were in the stands watching the game.

Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at mraimondi@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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