Photo: Belmont players listening to Head Coach Melissa Hart as Watertown receives the Sectional trophy.
The hoop dreams of Belmont High School Girls’ Basketball team came to an end at 8:37 p.m. on Saturday, March 12, as the final buzzer ended a brilliant two-week run of upsets and spirited play as arch rivals Watertown (once again) walked off the court at Woburn High School with their second consecutive Division 2 North title.
And as the Raiders swept onto the floor to accept its trophy, Belmont’s girls – many in tears – circled arm in arm around their coaches, to hear why this loss did not define their season.
“I think we tried our hardest, but the calls were not on our side in the second half, to say the least,” said Sarah Stewart, the senior co-captain who was its leader on and off the court.
After a first half in which Belmont executed its game plan to near perfection against the four-time consecutive North finalists (the past three years in Division 2 and the first in Division 3) to enter the half with a five-point lead, 26-21, the second half saw the Marauders slip from “drive” to “neutral” scoring just 20 points, five in the third quarter.
“Obviously, Watertown made and shots and we didn’t. Our defense was really good in the half, but we struggled with scoring,” said Belmont Head Coach Melissa Hart, who praised Watertown’s senior forward Katelyn Rourke, her division’s MVP, who along with junior center Shannon Murphy, scored 12 points, both making only two baskets while scoring eight points from the free throw line.
“[Rourke] showed today why she’s the MVP. We should have adjusted better in the third quarter when she started to take command,” said Hart.
The Raiders would also benefit from 16 minutes of generous officials whistles. While the free throws were slightly in Belmont’s favor in the first half, 18-13, the second half saw Watertown go to the line 25 times to Belmont’s nearly non-existent 6. At one point early in the fourth quarter, the team fouls benefited the Raiders 10-3.
“It’s tough when both teams are playing physical, and the fouls are so one-sided,” said Hart.
While reluctant to speak of the reason for the five-to-one margin in the second half, a seven-year-old son of a friend came to Hart to ask “Why didn’t they call the penalties?”
“What he said,” said Hart.
If the game ended in heartbreak, it started as a mirror of the Marauders’ final five games in which the team played an aggressive defense that led its offense.
“We had been with each other since 10:30 [in the] morning, so we were like so sick of each other. But when we entered this gym, we were like sisters. And in the first half, we were like a family on the court,” said Stewart.
After allowing a quick basket, senior co-captain Samari Winklaar (5 points) hit two from the free throw line and sophomore Jenny Call (game-high 10 points) sunk the first of two threes to give Belmont the lead.
Watertown’s senior Felicia Korte (11 points) made her own three to up the Raider lead by one, 7-6, only for Belmont sophomore all-star guard Carly Christofori (9 points) to hit her own three to recapture the lead, 9-7. Senior Irini Nikolaidis (3 points) drove the baseline to make the basket and hit the foul shot to increase the Marauders lead to 12-7. Finally, Stewart (7 points) threw in a long two to up Belmont’s lead by 7, 14-7, at the 2:20 mark. Belmont would take a 15-11 result in the second quarter.
On the defensive end, Belmont freshman center Jess Giorgio (2 points) made life miserable for Murphy, playing the Holy Cross-bound even up including stuffing the league all-star once (for a jump ball), causing a turnover and causing her to pick up three first half fouls.
Watertown would knot the game up at 16 before Call hit a contested jumper to put Belmont in the lead again, 18-16.
If there could have been a turning point in the game, it occurred at the 4:20 mark when it appeared Christofori was fouled as she was making a driving basket. But the referee said the violation happened before the shot and disallowed the chance for a three-point play.
On Watertown’s next possession, the gym erupted when it clearly appeared the Raiders’ guard was guilty of a carrying violation. The sequence ended with Watertown scoring to reduce its deficit to two, 20-18.
Belmont sophomore Greta Propp (2 points) and freshman point guard Meghan Tan (3 points) each hit a pair of free throws while driving Giorgio was fouled by Murphy. She made her two and Belmont would match its largest lead of 7 points, 26-19, and then take a five-point lead at the half.
“We were trusting on the court which was not the case in the regular season,” said Stewart. “Coming to the tournament, we really learned to trust each other. So when someone has the ball, they are going to do something best for the team, not just them,” she said.
The third quarter saw both teams up the defensive pressure with Watertown attempting to go inside at every chance while Belmont kept firing from the outside. Soon, Watertown was heading to the charity stripe while Belmont’s shots were rimming out.
Watertown would take the lead when senior Nicole Lanzo (9 points) knocked in a straightaway three to give the Raiders’ a 29-26 lead.
Then a Winklaar three followed by a Winklaar-to-Giorgio-to-Stewart jumper saw Belmont with the lead with 48 seconds remaining in the quarter. But a free throw each from Rourke and Murphy tied the score game up at 31 entering the final eight minutes.
Rather than a free-flowing last quarter, the game was reduced to a seemingly constant trip to the free throw line for the Raiders as they went 11 for 15 from the line. Watertown would only make four baskets in the final 16 minutes, one less than Belmont.
An NBA-styled move in the lane from Christofori got Belmont within a single possession at 40-37 with three minutes to go. But even when Murphy fouled out with 1:40 remaining, Belmont could not come closer than Call’s final points, a three, to cut the lead to the final score.
For Stewart, the team came one game short of its goal of making it to the TD Garden for the Eastern Massachusetts. But the past fortnight, the girls created a unique experience in defeating three higher seeds and came together as a group.
“This team, this year, was definitely a huge challenge to be a captain because there were so many players (18 during the season). We were scared at first but having a big team changed us because everybody brought something to the table, and that’s what made us-us. And that’s what brought the team this far,” she said, finally flashing a smile.