Championship Bound: Belmont Upsets Arlington Catholic for Spot in Sectional Finals

Photo: Samari Winklaar (center) after the team’s victory vs. Arlington Catholic. (photo by 

With just seconds left in the third quarter and Belmont with a tenuous three-point lead over favorite Arlington Catholic, Belmont High’s senior co-captain Samari Winklaar wasn’t thinking about playing it safe and holding onto the ball near the right corner of the court to allow the clock to run out.

“I knew I was going to take that shot,” said Winklaar.

With a pair of Cougars draped over her and off a bad angle, Winklaar half pushed/half flung a prayer towards the basket as she fell into the first row of the benches in the Billerica High gym in front of a bus load of noisy Belmont fans.

And as the buzzer went off, the prayer was answered as the ball hit nothing but the bottom of the net.

As Winklaar (who led Belmont with 13 points (2 threes) and going 7-8 from the free-throw line) dove into her teammates arms, the Marauders’ lead doubled to 29-23 while the confidence of the 2014 State Champions was all but crushed by the improbable hoop.

“We said ‘we made it this far, we just need to keep going,” said sophomore point guard Carly Christofori. 

Employing its trademark suffocating defense and running past the Cougars in the third quarter, Belmont defeated the three seed – the third higher seed the team has beaten – in a Division 2 North semifinal thriller, 45-38, on Tuesday, March 8. For the first time in decades, Belmont will play in a sectional final on Saturday, March 12.

“We kept our composure well. We didn’t rattle easily today and even though we had trouble scoring, we gritted it out,” said Belmont Head Coach Melissa Hart.

[Unfortuantly, the game was virtually ignored by the three major sports outlets – the Boston Herald, Boston.com and ESPN Boston – while the media focused on nearly all other playoff games on Tuesday.]

While the time and location remain to be determined, the Marauders’ opponent will be the winner of the Triton/Watertown match on Wednesday, March 9, which could result in a dream match with the defending Division 2 North champions attempting to repeat with its traditional rivals standing in its way.

“Another shot at Watertown. I love it,” said Hart.

Belmont is heading to the finals on a foundation of a tenacious defense that proved as psychologically devastating as it is physically exhausting for Arlington Catholic. 

“Our defense frazzled them, and Arlington Catholic is a good team,” said Hart as Belmont’s in-their-face defensive approach prevented the Cougars from running its set plays, requiring them to search for alternatives, and launching more difficult shots.

In the key matchup of the game, Arlington Catholic’s big players 6′ 1″ Lena Perez and 6’3″ Demiana Fogarty were kept in check by Belmont’s counterparts; senior Sarah Stewart and freshman Jess Giorgio.

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(from left) Jess Giorgio and Sarah Stewart.

“The problems for us happened when she got the ball, so we just tried to stop her from getting it. She didn’t have much success because she wasn’t getting that many put-backs,” said Giorgio after the game.

And it is no coincidence that the effort opponents need to put out against Belmont has affected them in one important area. Against Belmont, the three opponents have gone 29-74 from the free throw line, a dismal 39 percent. Last night, AC hit 8 of 22 from the charity strip, about 36 percent.

Belmont came out shooting in the first, but only hitting a fraction of what they put up, finally scoring on a Jenny Call baseline bucket and a foul shot to give Belmont the lead, 3-2, after three minutes of play.

Call hit a floater to bring Belmont within one, 8-7, before Winklaar swished a three to give Belmont a 10-8 lead entering the second quarter.

While Belmont kept the Cougars to seven points, the Marauders’ only found the basket once, via a Stewart jumper as the teams went into the half 15-12 AC.

The Cougars took its biggest lead when freshman guard Erin Donlan hit a straight away three giving her team an 18-12 lead. But an Irini Nikolaidis put-back of an offensive rebound, a Meghan Tan layup, a Giorgio free throw and a Tan three at 2:47 in the third tied the score at 20.

In the final two-and-a-half minutes, Belmont made its move: after Perez had missed a pair of free throws, Stewart hit a jumper, Giorgio took a perfect pass from Tan to hit her only basket of the night and Winklaar hit both free throws after being fouled with 50 seconds remaining. With a three point lead and 20 seconds remaining, Belmont didn’t get the shot they wanted, but Winklaar made it count.

Neither team was all that productive in the first four minutes, with Belmont stretching its lead to 34-24. And while AC cut the lead to four, 36-32, with two minutes to play, a Stewart spin jumper for two, and a slew of Marauder free throws shut the door on Arlington Catholics comeback. 

When the final buzzer went off, the Belmont players exploded off the bench as they thoroughly enjoyed the celebration. 

“With had so many fans come here, we had to give them what they came for, and that was a win,” said Christofori.

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Photo by Kenneth Leinbach

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