Photo: Senior co-captain Irini Nikolaidis shooting the winning free throw as Belmont upsets Newburyport on Sunday.
Clutch free throws from senior co-captain Irini Nikolaidis and a critical steal by sophomore guard Carly Christofori in the final minute propelled Belmont High School Girls’ Basketball to the upset victory over host and second seed Newburyport High Clippers, 49-47, in the Saturday after quarterfinals of the MIAA Division 2 North sectionals, March 5.
The victory sends the 10th seed Marauders to the Division 2 North semifinals for the third time in four years, to take on 3rd-seed Arlington Catholic which defeated Melrose 55-43 Sunday. The game will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, March 8, at Billerica High School.
Nikolaidis coolly knocked down a pair of free throws – the final of five consecutive successful free throws – after being fouled driving to the basket with one minute remaining in the game to give Belmont a one-point lead, 48-47. Then it was left up to Belmont’s defense to stop Newburyport and its star Emily Pettigrew, who scored her 1,000 career point while collecting a game-high 22 points.
“I missed my first two (free throws) of the game so I just had to block out their fans … and focus on making them,” said Nikolaidis.
Closing off the passing lane to Pettigrew, a drive by freshman guard Anna Hickman was blocked by freshman center Jess Giorgio (2 points) with 43 seconds but remained the Clippers’ ball. Then Christofori, who quarterbacked the offensive for all but a few minutes of the game, stepped in front of an outlet pass and sent sophomore Jenny Call into the forecourt.
“I was just thinking, ‘We needed the ball, we need the ball now’,” said Christofori.
After a timeout, Belmont hung onto the ball until the collision at midcourt in which senior co-captain Samri Winklaar ended up at the bottom of a Clippers pile, resulting in a 30-second violation.
With less than 12 seconds remaining, the Clippers again went to Hickman whose shot with 8.3 seconds was missed with Giorgio’s wingspan altering the attempt. In the resulting scrum for possession, Call dived onto the floor to tie up a Newburyport player for a jump ball with the all-important arrow pointing towards Belmont’s bench with 3.9 seconds remaining.
On the critical inbounds pass, Christofori found Giorgio, who quickly pass the ball to guard Meghan Tan in the forecourt where she was fouled with 0.2 seconds. Tan made the second of two foul shots, a full court shot fell much too short and the celebration began.
For senior captain Sarah Stewart, who fouled out after defending the taller and bigger Pettigrew, the playoffs have been an emotional ride, literally.
“I was crying on the way here because you’ll never have such a great community come out and all the fans that came here just made us win. That spirit just coming to Newburyport (a 50 mile journey from Belmont) that’s how we won tonight.”
Belmont’s Head Coach Melissa Hart said her team “is stepping up when they are being challenged.”
“They’re good, it’s a good group that shows its resilency with each playoff game,” she said.
The biggest assist for Belmont Saturday came from the Clippers themselves which collectively went a woeful 17 for 40 from the free-throw line, missing 23 times from the charity stripe, including going 5 for 19 in the second quarter.
Belmont was somewhat better from the line, making 17 for 32.
“I’m more surprised that they went to the free throw line 40 times,” said Hart, who said she got a headache after watching too many Belmont frees not fall through.
Unlike its previous playoff game against Marblehead, which they fell behind 12-0 in the opening period, Belmont started the game on the front foot as Call hit a pair of threes while Nikolaidis started the game with a breakaway layup to give Belmont a quick 8-1 lead. The host Clippers quickly got back in the game, mostly from driving against Belmont’s zone defense to go on a 6-1 run to end the first, down 9-7.
Belmont once again started fast, with baskets from sophomore guard Alexa Sabatino and Nikolaidis to see Belmont jump to a 13-8 edge and then 16-12 with a Christofori three-pointer midway through the second. The Marauders would lead going into the half, 21-18, after the Clippers missed six consecutive free throws in the final minute of the half.
The last 16 minutes turned into a rough-and-tumble affair – several times many girls would find themselves looking up from the court’s floor – with Pettigrew using her considerable stature (6 foot to her team’s benefit, keeping the Clippers close as Belmont used a three from Christofori, a floater by Call and a strong move by Winklaar for two increased its lead to 32-28 entering the final quarter.
But that advantage was gone after Hickman scored twice (a three and a two) and two free throws from Pettigrew gave the hosts a 35-32 lead at the 5:40 mark. It would be Belmont senior co-captain Sarah Stewart who led the way back with a bank shot for a basket before standing her ground against a full-speed Pettigrew to draw the charge.
Down by three, 37-34, with 4:40 left, Belmont made its stand; first Nikolaidis put in an offensive rebound while being fouled to complete the three-point play and tie the score then Tan knocked down a three-pointer (her only hoop in a six-point afternoon) to give Belmont the lead at 40-39.
The Clippers would go up by three once more before Call hit her two free throws at 3:22 to get Belmont within one, 43-42, before Winklaar went one for two to tie the score at 43.
Later down by one, Nikolaidis grabbed another offensive rebound and hit her second and third free throws at 2:10 to put Belmont up by one, 46-45. After Pettigrew had hit two free throws with a little more than a minute remaining to give Newburyport its final lead at 47-46, it was time for Nikolaidis, Christofori, and the defense to take the game from the Clippers.