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Triple Threat: Tyrone Grads Lead Penn State Altoona Lady Lions

Finnley Christine, Alexis Cannistraci, and Emily Lehman are together again, leading PSUA to one of their best seasons in years.

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Triple Threat: Tyrone Grads Lead Penn State Altoona Lady Lions

Tyrone alums Emily Lehman '18, Finnley Christine '16 and Alexis Cannistraci '17 are making a big impact as members of the Lady Lions basketball squad.

Tyrone alums Emily Lehman '18, Finnley Christine '16 and Alexis Cannistraci '17 are making a big impact as members of the Lady Lions basketball squad.

photo courtesy of Finnley Christine

Tyrone alums Emily Lehman '18, Finnley Christine '16 and Alexis Cannistraci '17 are making a big impact as members of the Lady Lions basketball squad.

photo courtesy of Finnley Christine

photo courtesy of Finnley Christine

Tyrone alums Emily Lehman '18, Finnley Christine '16 and Alexis Cannistraci '17 are making a big impact as members of the Lady Lions basketball squad.

By Emma Hoover, Tyrone Area High School

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Penn State Altoona head women’s basketball coach Casey Wilt isn’t from Tyrone and probably couldn’t tell the difference between a Macs and an East End hoagie, but she definitely knows a good Tyrone basketball player when she sees one…or even three.

Three former Tyrone standouts: Finnley Christine, Alexis Cannistraci, and Emily Lehman, have reunited under Wilt on the Penn State Altoona Women’s Basketball team, and all three  have found success, both individually and as a team.

With two Tyrone women in the starting lineup, and another making significant contributions off the bench, Penn State earned their first trip to the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Tournament since the 2014-15 season.

I love being able to play with Lex and Em again. It was nice already knowing how the two of them play and also being able to have some chemistry beforehand with the two of them. I really enjoy knowing both of their tendencies, and that helps a lot in the game with kind of knowing where both of them will be on the floor to make plays”

— Finnley Christine

“All of [the Tyrone girls] are very special and bring a uniqueness to our program. I’m very proud of them and thankful for the opportunity to coach each of them. It’s nice to have three players from the same high school playing for our program. They know one another very well. They know each other’s tendencies on and off the court. They remind me of sisters, there is a lot of love and respect amongst them,” said Coach Wilt.

Christine is the reigning AMCC co-preseason Player of the Year. The junior guard is fifth in the conference in points per game with 15.6, and ended the regular season just 40 points short of the 1,000-career point mark for her collegiate career. Cannistraci, a sophomore guard and forward, was second in the AMCC in points per game with 17.5 points, and rebounds per game with  9.8. Lehman, a freshman forward, is already making her impact felt off the bench, playing a significant number of minutes for the Lady Lions.

Christine was a four year letter winner at Tyrone, a two time first team Mountain League All-Star, and offensive team MVP. Christine would have scored her 1,000th point during her senior year, but a late season ACL tear and ended her senior season just short of her 1,000 point goal. 

Christine persevered through surgery and rehab and Penn State women’s basketball has given her a second chance to reach the 1,000 point mark that eluded her in high school. Being able to reach the goal with some of her high school teammates has made the journey even more enjoyable.

“I love being able to play with Lex and Em again. It was nice already knowing how the two of them play and also being able to have some chemistry beforehand with the two of them. I really enjoy knowing both of their tendencies, and that helps a lot in the game with kind of knowing where both of them will be on the floor to make plays,” said Christine.

PSUA girls

Photo courtesy of Finnley Christine
Cannistraci, Christine and Lehman

In her freshman season Christine started 20 of 22 games, averaging 26.5 minutes per game, 8.1 points per game, and scored a total of 179 points. The following year, Christine had even more success.  She started all 23 games, averaging 35.4 minutes per game, 17.6 points per game, and scoring more than 20 points in 11 games.  She also won ECAC Player of the Week and the Team MVP Award.

This year, Christine has averaged 16 points per game, with one 29 and one 30 point game, and she was named AMCC Player of the Week for December 10th.  Christine is also fourth in the conference in points per game, and at 960 career points she is quickly approaching that 1,000 point goal that evaded her in high school.  Christine currently ranks sixth all-time in points in Lady Lions history. 

Wilt looks to Christine as the team’s leader. “Finn has really stepped into that role this year. She cracks jokes and is lighthearted, but when it comes time to be focused and put in the work, she is able to flip the switch quickly and expects her teammates to follow suit. Finn’s offensive game continues to hold strong, she’s the second leading scorer on our team. She can knock down the long ball but has the ability to get to the rim as well. She often times is defended by the opposing team’s best defender,” said Wilt.

Sophomore Alexis Cannistraci joined Christine in 2017, making a duo of Tyrone impact players at PSUA.  While at Tyrone, Cannistraci was a four-time letter winner in both basketball and volleyball, and a first team all-conference pick in basketball and volleyball.  She was also named the MVP of the 2016 Reliance Bank Tournament and the Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Week. 

Cannistraci is happy with her choice to attend Penn State and reunite with her old teammates. “I love being able to play with these girls again. I’ve played with both of them since about the fifth grade. Once you mesh with someone on the court, it never goes away,” said Cannistraci.

Cannistraci took on a bigger role each season of her high school career, and has continued to improve in college. In her freshman year, she was named to the AMCC Academic All-Conference Team, was ranked third in AMCC for free throw percentage, fourth in AMCC for blocked shots, and tenth in defensive rebounds. This season as a sophomore Cannistraci is leading the team in scoring and rebounding.  She was named AMCC Player of the Week twice, and was also named 2018 Hoops for Hope Classic All-Tournament Team. Cannistraci was ranked second in AMCC in points per game and rebounds.  She is also ranked fifth in the conference for free throw percentage and seventh in blocked shots.

In addition to the impressive stats, another big part of Cannistraci’s role on the team is to keep things light-hearted.

“Lex is our comedian. She helps us remember why we play this sport outside of our competitive nature. We play because we enjoy the camaraderie, love, and fun of basketball. She is a versatile player with great presence on the block, can hit from the outside, and handles the ball in full court. This makes it difficult for teams to defend. Lex is leading our team in scoring and rebounding,” said Coach Wilt.

Competing at the Division III level has also allowed Cannistraci to be a two-sport athlete. She was a big contributor on the PSUA women’s volleyball squad in the fall.

Freshman Emily Lehman, the newest Tyrone addition to the PSUA Lady Lions, just closed out her successful career at Tyrone last season.  Lehman was a four-year letter winner at Tyrone in basketball and softball, a three-time Mountain League champion, and a first-team Mountain League All-Star. She was also named the Lady Eagle’s Most Valuable Player in 2017-18 and was the Altoona Mirror All-Star Game MVP.  

The fact that two of her Tyrone teammates were already at Penn State Altoona factored into her decision to attend Penn State Altoona and play for the Lady Lions.

“It so great being able to play with Lex and Finn again, it feels just like the good old days. I am so glad I get to experience college basketball with them,” said Lehman.

In only her freshman season, Lehman has been a big contributor off the bench. In her best game of the year, she scored a season-high 15 points in a close playoff loss to PSU Behrend.

“Emily had a phenomenal night [against Behrend], hands down her best game this year. Her play helped keep us in the game,” said Wilt.

All three of [the girls] are very special and bring a uniqueness to our program. I’m very proud of them and thankful for the opportunity to coach each of them.  It’s nice to have three players from the same high school playing for our program. They remind me of sisters, there is a lot of love and respect amongst them”

— Coach Wilt

Lehman brings some Tyrone toughness and a solid work ethic to the Lady Lions.

“Em is a physical, tough as nails player. She has no problem getting in there and bumping around with our opponents. On the offensive end, she’ll battle anyone for her position on the block. But her game isn’t limited to one space. Emily has a nice mid-range shot and continues to work on her long-range game as well. She has provided sound minutes for us and has been our spark on numerous occasions,” said Coach Wilt.

Cannistraci and Christine were named to the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference’s All-Conference team. Christine took second team All-Conference honors for the second consecutive season and Cannistraci break out season earned her first team All-AMCC honors.

With the Tyrone trio of Christine, Cannistraci and Lehman, the 2018-2019 Lady Lions registered the most overall wins (12) and conference wins (10) since the 2009-10 season. They finished the regular season in fourth place in the AMCC, and their invitation to this season’s ECAC Division III Championship Tournament was its first in program history.

While the girls appreciate individual awards, their primary goal is to be on a championship team.  With all three returning next season, the Altoona Lady Lions will have a better chance to bring a championship to Altoona.

“I’m sad that the season has ended, but I’m so very proud and thankful for each of our players,” said Wilt after a season ending 89-59 playoff loss to Washington & Jefferson. “I look forward to next year and having the gang back together again. I’m excited to see what successes they will have in the 2019-20 season.”

This story was originally published on Tyrone Eagle Eye News on March 8, 2019.

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