Photo: Senior Elena Bragg stares at the court after Belmont lost in the sectional semifinals to Watertown on Wednesday, March 4.
They working themselves to exhaustion, physically and mentally, on that basketball court in Malden. The Belmont High School Girls’ Basketball team wanted this game against its arch-rivals, knowing to a player they were capable of pulling off the upset.
They put it all on the line.
It wasn’t enough.
When the buzzer sounded to announce Watertown High School’s 49-40 victory over Belmont in the Div. 2 North Sectional semifinals Wednesday night, March 4, the tears and emotion from the players who bonded throughout their successful season unashamedly came forth.
“I’m super proud of those girls. I can’t say enough about this team and how great they are. It’s just a shame that it’s over,” said a subdued Head Coach Melissa Hart, looking at her girls pulling their uniforms into their face, not to show how bad they felt.
“I think we left everything on the court, for sure,” said Sophia Eschenbach-Smith, one of the team’s co-captains.
“Yes, we came up short but we played our hearts out for every second of it, so none of us have any regrets how the game went,” she told the Belmontonian.
On this night, Watertown – undefeated, a number-one seed and a top-ten ranking in media polls for the entire season – made more plays and fewer mistakes against their neighbors, earning that trip to Lowell Saturday for the sectional finals against Pentucket Regional.
“Watertown, they made the plays, they made the shots. And we were just a little sloppy,” Hart said.
A major aim of Belmont’s game plan was to keep Watertown close, both in the score and physically, to hamper the high-powered offense that proved itself by sweeping through the season without a loss, including an opening game win against a much different, less put-together Belmont team.
On Wednesday, Watertown was successful with their “drive and dish” offense in which a Raider players would head for the basket, luring Marauders to her, when she would pass to an open player, with sophomore Shannon Murphy (10 points) or junior Katelyn Rourke (game high 15 point) mostly on the receiving end.
Nor was the level of officiating helping Belmont. While both teams play a physical game, and the Raiders are known for their ball hawking manner, the officials appeared to pay closer attention to incidental contact from the Marauders. Near the end of the first half, Belmont amassed nine fouls to Watertown’s two, a discrepancy noted by the large turnout of Belmont students who came to support their team.
Watertown played a crisper first half while Belmont found the going tough near the basket as Murphy swatted away a number of Marauder attempts. At the end of the first quarter, Belmont was looking up at a 7-point deficit, 11-4.
But the Marauders appeared to shake off their nervousness between quarters and came out a more confident crew, especially on offense. Senior Co-Captain Linda Herlihy (4 points, 5 rebounds, got things rolling with her patient hook shot off the glass. Junior Irini Nikolaidis (4 points, 5 steals) hit a jumper in the paint before freshman Jenny Call (5 points) knocked home an open 3 pointer to cut the lead to a deuce, 13-11, at the 6:30 mark.
Resting starters, Hart placed the game into the hands of three freshmen – Call, Carly Christofori (9 points) and Greta Propp – who kept the game close, and when Eschenbach-Smith hit a 3 pointer and Christofori put in one of two from the line, Belmont was within a bucket, 24-22, with 60 seconds remaining to play.
But in that final minute, the Raiders made the decisive move of the game, going on a 7-0 run – with baskets by sophomore Murphy and junior Michaela Antonellis (5 points, all in the first half) as well as a big 3 from senior Rachel Morris (her only basket of the game) – to shot the lead up to 9 at end the half, 31-22.
The third quarter was like trench warfare during World War I; no one was giving an inch as both defenses stiffened. After six minutes, a total of 7 points (five for Watertown, two for Belmont) was scored before the Raiders punched home two buckets off “drive and dish” moves to lead by 13, 38-25, with eight minutes remaining.
With the exception of the second quarter, the anticipated Belmont surge – an explosion of points that put away opponents for the entire season – had not materialized, and with less than four minutes remaining, Belmont trailed Watertown, 44-29.
Then finally, it appeared. The final push from the Marauders came in the guise of an 11-2 run, all within two minutes. A pair of Christofori free throws, Eschenbach-Smith’s second 3 pointer and a pair of free throws got the score within 10 points before senior captain Elena Bragg (6 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) put her stamp on things.
Bragg – who is looking to play in a Division 3 college program in Boston next year – took a pass from Eschenbach-Smith for a layup, then immediately stole the ball and proceeded to throw up an over-the-shoulder, running prayer that was answered. The improbable basket brought the Marauders’ within six points with 59 second remaining, sending the Belmont fan base roaring and Herlihy calling out supporters to become even louder.
But that was a close as Belmont could get as Watertown settled down and spread the court, forcing Belmont to foul and sending them to the line.
At the buzzer, seniors sought each other while some of the younger players looked a bit in awe after seeing the emotion and grit spent Wednesday night.
Outside the locker room, parents and friends waited to greet their loved ones, to brush away tears and applaud the team one final time.
“We all came out with such high intensity from everyone,” said Herlihy. “The girls who don’t play that much, they were on their feet, ready to go come out and play.”
“I love this team, honestly, and I hate to see it end, but we had an amazing season. I’ll miss everyone so much,” she said.