Did you miss Thursday night’s Girls’ Basketball Div. 2 North quarterfinals at Bedford High?
Oh, I feel sorry for you.
In a game that could have been lost in so many ways – questionable calls, missed shots, a quicker and fresher opponent – 15 girls from Belmont High School willed themselves with guts, determination and intensity to craft a thrilling victory, 57-51, against the fourth-ranked Bedford High Buccaneers.
Belmont (16-6) now book a date (Tuesday, March 3 at 7 p.m. at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden) in the semi-finals with their neighboring arch-rival, undefeated (19-0) and number-one seed Watertown High, for the right to play in the sectional championship game.
“They showed so much heart and poise to come back from being down away from home,” said Head Coach Melissa Hart after the victory in which Belmont parents and fans savored the emotion with the players on the opposition’s court.
“”We gave up a lot of points early, but they never stopped fighting, not once,” said Hart.
The statistics compiled at the scorer’s table could scarcely tell the narrative written on the court in the bandbox gymnasium filled to overflowing with especially boisterous Bedford supporters. From the relentless team defensive leaving Bedford’s five starters exhausted and broken in the fourth quarter to the individual acts of top-notch athletic skill allowed the Marauders to rip the game out of the Buccaneers’ hands in the crucial third quarter and calmly “seal the deal” from the charity stripe in the final minutes.
“I wasn’t playing well,” said junior forward Sarah Stewart, who had three early fouls.
“So when I went back in, [Hart] told us you have be fierce in this game. So I didn’t get angry; I went in determined that we are going to win,” she said.
Leading the Marauders was captain and center Linda Herlihy, who finished with a game-high 21 points, five rebounds, and two blocks. Not seen in the stats is what Herlihy also provided – senior leadership. Once, at the very moment Belmont was on the edge of collapse – falling behind by nine points late in the second quarter – Herlihy yelled to her teammates, “Get a grip! Find your man!” to set the defense.
“We needed to focus and keep our heads. You can’t look at the score. You just have to play the game,” recalled Herlihy.
Down the final stretch, Belmont relied on the ball handling skills of freshman Carly Christofori (16 points), who secured the victory by coolly knocking down free throws in the fourth quarter where she went 8 for 12.
“Do you ever miss a free throw?” Bedford’s head coach Matt Ryan asked Christofori after the game.
Christofori admitted feeling a bit anxious when she stepped to the line to take her shots.
“I was really nervous, but I knew the team needed the points, so I just thought about converting,” said Christofori.
Both teams came out fast with Belmont – which came in with a height advantage, on its inside game as Herlihy scored eight of the team’s 16 points, countered by Bedford’s senior guard duo Kristen Bullock (14 points) and Amanda Cohen, who was red hot early, hitting a pair of 3 pointers (the Buccaneers put five in from distance while Belmont came up empty from beyond the arc) to score 10 of her 19 points in the first quarter.
Leading 26-24 midway through the second quarter, Bedford made their move, spreading out the defense and driving to the basket for shots in close while Belmont was having trouble with the Buccaneer’s man-to-man defense, turning over the ball several times. Belmont could only hit two free throws while Bedford was making free throws to take a 33-24 lead at half time.
“They were good, but we didn’t play the sort of defense we needed to win,” said Hart.
But as with its first-round playoff game – a 71-43 home victory over Danvers where Belmont outscored the Falcons’ 45-19 in the second half – the Marauders stepped up its press defense which began to take a toll on the tiring Bedford players. While Hart was liberally substituting, Ryan kept his starters on the court, and it began showing as shots that were going in where staying out. With Belmont’s edge inside, Belmont took control under the boards.
“They were getting tired, so we just kept pushing,” said Herlihy.
And Belmont began seeing shots drop: a jumper from junior Irini Nikolaidis (4 points), a tough two under the basket from Herlihy, a free throw by Christofori and finally senior Sophia Eschenbach-Smith (4 points) pretty bounce pass to an open Stewart (4 points) completed a four-minute, 10-0 run, giving the Marauders their first lead since 10-8 in the first quarter.
Belmont kept the lead, going ahead 39-35 on a sweeping hook from freshman Jenny Call (2 points), before two Bedford free throws and a three from Cohen gave the Buccaneers the lead, 40-39, entering the fourth.
And it appeared Bedford caught a second wind, pushing their lead up to 46-41, but it was apparent the Buccaneers were drained, committing turnovers – including an easy steal and bucket by Christofori – and unable to keep up with Belmont’s defense, demonstrated when Bedford could not attempt a shot within 30 seconds and holding a one-point lead.
Belmont grabbed the lead (47-46) for good on a driving layup by Christofori with 3:50 remaining before Herlihy showed her touch by taking the ball and kissing it off the backboard to up Belmont’s margin to three at 49-46 with 3:12 left.
While Bedford cut the lead to 52-51 with 88 seconds remaining, Belmont forced a turnover and was soon fouled every time up the court. A pair from Christofori gave Belmont a 54-51 lead while Bedford blew a bunny in close. Christofori knocked down two more to bring the lead up to 56-51 with 45 seconds left.
And it was preserving the lead against some accomplished three-point scorers where Belmont players showed their grit. Senior Elena Bragg (5 points) grabbed a critical defensive rebound on a missed free throw followed by Stewart ripping down an offensive rebound after Christofori missed her second of two free throws and, finally, Herlihy pulled in an offensive rebound between three Bedford players with 20 second left.
Then the celebration began.
“This is a great win. Now we have to bring all that with us against Watertown,” said Hart.