3 Up, 3 Down, Tournament Bound: Belmont Girls’ Hoops Strides into Post-Season

Three games in three days is a tough proposition for most professional teams. For a squad of high schoolers, a trio of games in as many days is a daunting prospect.

So when the Belmont High School Girls’ Basketball team was forced because of the numerous snow storms to play a triple header – two of the opponents playoff-bound with double digit wins – at the end of last week, the coaching staff was a bit concerned how the team would stand up to playing 96 minutes within 48 hours.

“It’s not what we are looking to end our [Middlesex] league schedule and get into the playoffs,” said Melissa Hart, Belmont’s head coach as the team was coming off a two-game losing streak and standing a single game from making the post-season.

But by 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 13, the Marauders had completed a three-peat, defeating Lexington, Wakefield and Winchester to stride into the Div. 2 North Sectional playoffs. With a pair of post-season tournament games on Monday and Tuesday remaining, Belmont has upped its record to 12-5, one of the team’s best marks in the past decade.

“It’s nice to be [in the playoffs] so some of the pressure will be off the team,” said Hart, after the team’s victory against 12-win Lexington, 51-45, on Wednesday, Feb. 11, giving the team its 10th victory and an automatic entry into the sectional tournament.

The match-up was the return of Lexington’s superstar Anna Kelly, the junior guard who scored 52 points the last time she visited Belmont’s Wenner Field House a year ago. But this time, Kelly picked up two quick fouls and sat on the Lexington bench for most of the first half.

Without their all-star point scoring and directing the squad, Lexington could not break Belmont’s unrelenting defense and the Marauders’ took the game to the Minutemen.

The game for Belmont was a tale of two players in the two halves. In the first 16 minutes, junior forward Sarah Stewart took charge, on the defensive side with four defensive rebounds, two blocks, a steal and several examples of court diving at loose balls and offensively by going three for five from beyond the 3-point line for  to power Belmont to a 28-10 lead at the half.

“Making [3 point shots] was unknown land for me,” said Steward, who said she has been encouraged by the coaches to throw up trey when she’s open.

“I now have a new home,” said Steward, who is known as Stewy by her teammates.

It was only a matter of time before Kelly would reemerge, and she did in a big way in the second half. The 5’6″ three year starter is a natural on the hardwood and she came out with a vengeance, throwing up threes and sweeping underhanded scoop shots, scoring 11 of her game-high 22 points in the third quarter to led the Minutemen back to 35-28 with the final eight minutes to play.

Soon after Stewart started the fourth with her third 3 pointer, the school’s fire alarm went off, sending players, coaches, the crowd and a collection of very young swimmers from the adjacent Higginbottom Pool out into the frigid cold for a few minutes before it was decided for everyone’s health that it was better to wait by the gym’s doors.

While many of the other players may have cooled off, freshman point guard Carly Christofori got hot for the Marauders. The 9th grader put a first-class steal on Kelly as the all-star was driving to hoop – one of Christofori’s three steals in the quarter – before racing to the offensive end to hit a trio of driving layups and going 3 for 4 from the charity stripe to score 11 of the teams 16 points in the quarter to secure the victory.

“To play against someone as good as [Kelly] and succeed some of the time is great,” said Christofori, who said the team needed to stay focus once the fire alarm went off “so we could concentrate on keeping the lead and securing the win.

Belmont’s trademark aggressive defense has been frustrating opponents who has met the Marauders for the first time and that was the case Thursday, Feb. 12 when Belmont handily defeated Wakefield, 51-30, on Seniors’ Night at the Wenner.

The Marauders pressured the Warriors – who came into the game with an identical 10-5 record – up and down the court, at times triple teaming the second Wakefield player to handle the ball. The result was 12 steals (four each from seniors Sophia Eschenbach-Smith and Elena Bragg) in a game that was the closest to a total “team” win this season. Ten Marauders’ scored and each of the 15 varsity players got time on the court.

Belmont led after the first quarter, 14-4, and 23-10 at the half with freshman Jenny Call hit two of her three 3-point in both the first and second quarter and senior center Linda Herlihy‘s mid-range jumper. The Marauders blew the game wide open with a 22-point third quarter with Stewart hitting all four of her shots.

By Friday’s away game, fatigue appeared to set in as the Marauders carried themselves over the finish line by defeating Winchester, 38-20, in a game that Hart described as “ugly.”

“Friday the 13th for both teams shooting,” she said.

Just how poor was it? Belmont led at the half 13-1. Herlihy scored a third of Belmont’s points finishing with 12 points, all from near the basket, while Call and Bragg each had 6 points.

Belmont now heads for a pair of games at the 2015 Spartan Classic in Lynn – the first against Bedford – before finishing the season with a home game Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 11 a.m. against Worcester North.

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