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D1 North: Westford 53, Billerica 49

HAVERHILL, Mass. -– Westford Academy junior forward Samantha Hyslip knew that her team was going to have to make improvements if they were going to avenge an early season loss to Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 champion Billerica.

“In general we have improved a lot over the course of this season,” Hyslip said. “We had to push ourselves harder in practice, we played against the boys at times and we really worked hard to improve each day.”

The improvements certainly paid off on Thursday night as Hyslip led the way by scoring 20 points, pulling down 18 rebounds and blocking three shots as No. 3 seed Westford Academy defeated No. 2 seed Billerica 53-49 to advance to the Division 1 North finals on Saturday evening.

With a trip to the Tsongas Center in Lowell and a berth in the Division 1 North finals at stake, Westford Academy (20-4) and Billerica (20-3) engaged in a hard-fought battle that came down to the final minute of play.

“In the first game against Billerica we missed some big free throws so it is kind of nice to come full circle, hit some key free throws and win it,” Westford head coach Russ Coward said after the game.

Westford started strong and led the entire first half, taking a 30-22 lead to the break in a defensively charged opening frame.

The Grey Ghosts held Billerica to just eight first quarter points and shut the Indians out for the first 3:43 of the game. Westford’s half court trapping defense and the length of 6-foot-0 junior guard Hannah Hackley gave the Indians problems getting into offensive possessions early in the game.

Hackley scored 10 of her 12 points in the first half to lead all scorers through two quarters.

“Everyone knows how good Sam Hyslip is, but Hannah has just been getting better and better,” Coward said. “She battled some back problems early in the season and over the summer but she has really blossomed and become a phenomenal player.”

Billerica, which trailed by as many as 13 points midway through the second quarter, made a late charge behind senior guards Kayla Leverone and Brittany Lomanno to cut the deficit to single digits heading into the half.

Trailing by eight points, The Indians came out of the break and dominated play, earning their first lead at 37-36 with 54.8 seconds remaining in the quarter. Junior guard Shannon Hayes scored nine of her team-high 15 points in the run.

Despite the Billerica surge, Westford scored the final four points of the third quarter and take a 40-37 lead heading in to the final frame.

Hyslip would open the quarter with a blocked shot, an offensive rebound and a basket as she re-established the post-position that was so effective early in the game.

“I thought that the game was really up for grabs at the beginning of the fourth quarter,” Billerica head coach Chris Doneski said. “They scored on a couple possessions to start the fourth, we struggled a bit to find a place to go offensively, and it was just tough chasing six to eight point leads all quarter.”

Westford took a 48-39 lead with 4:29 remaining in the game before Billerica would chip away and cut the lead to one point at 48-47 with 1:35 remaining. Hyslip would then score her biggest basket of the game late in the shot clock to give Westford a three-point lead that they would hold on to for the win.

“We stayed together through the rough patch,” Hyslip said. “We just have to realize that when things are not going well to stick together, correct the issue and not let it happen again.”

Westford Academy also received strong games from seniors Christina Nowak (four points, eight rebounds) and Meghan Kibblehouse (two points, four assists and two big free throws down the stretch).

Third star: As well as Hyslip and Hackley played for Westford Academy the unsung hero of the game was junior guard Catherine Sennott. The versatile wing guard scored nine of her 15 points in the first half on three crucial 3-pointers.

In the final minute of the game Sennott made two of the biggest plays of the game as she came up with two big steals with Westford leading by only three points. Sennott also converted a big free throw in the final seconds of the game to help Westford seal the win.

Senior Legacy: Billerica will certainly miss their five graduating seniors as they all have made a dramatic and lasting impact on the program.

Senior captains Lomanno, and Leverone have been staples in the backcourt for the Indians while post players Danielle Nickerson, Joslyn King and role player Katie McGinniss all made major impacts on the program and its success.

“When I took over we were 5-13 and over the past three years they have completely transformed the program,” Doneski said of his seniors. “They have made it a consistent, winning program and installed a lot of pride with everybody involved.”

Lomanno (nine points, eight rebounds, six assists, three steals), is a poised 5-foot-5 leader at the point guard position, who will take her game down the road to UMass Lowell next season where she will play for Division 1 basketball as the Riverhawks move into America East play next season.