LOWELL, Mass. -- The value of playing a loaded schedule that gets you ready for postseason play was never more evident than in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Div. 1 North final.
Staring at a three-point deficit, No. 5 Central Catholic put together a game-ending, 14-2 run to close out No. 3 Westford Academy, 60-51, at Tsongas Center. The Raiders (20-5) return to TD Garden for the first time in four years and will face Braintree in the state semifinals on Monday.
Senior center Casey McLaughlin led the Raiders with 15 points and 14 rebounds, Courtney Walsh and Darion Summers each added 13, and Amanda Williams finished with 10 points and 10 boards. Samantha Hyslip paced the Grey Ghosts (20-5) with 17 points and 16 rebounds, while fellow junior Hannah Hackley also tossed in 17.
Led by Hyslip and Hackley, the Grey Ghosts (20-5) had just completed a 12-0 run of their own, grabbing a 49-46 lead with 5:08 left to play. But when you spend a season battling the likes of Billerica and Andover, among others in the loaded Merrimack Valley Conference, a three-point hole in the final frame is but another hurdle to fly over.
A McLaughlin free throw and a putback by Caitlin Dell'Orfano pulled Central even at 49-49, then Walsh put her team in front for good with just over three minutes to play. The Raiders added six more before Hyslip finally stopped the drought with 35 seconds left on the clock, but the Raiders went 5-for-6 at the stripe in the final minute to close it out.
"I think everyone just had a gut check," McLaughlin said. "We realized, this is it, this is the last game we get to play so leave it out on the floor. Everyone really just mentally prepared. Courtney Walsh and Darion, everyone hit big free throws at the end and and we just D'd up and got stops."
Defense and rebounding is the foundation of what makes Central Catholic so successful, and both of those things played a huge role in this victory.
"We preach it all the time and a wise friend once told me when I got into coaching, it always comes down to defense, layups and foul shots," Raiders coach Sue Downer explained. "If you think about it, a lot of games do and that's what it came down to tonight -- our defensive effort and making those foul shots."
Westford tried to throw a zone defense at the Raiders, something they don't see much of during the regular season, but Central's speed was ultimately too much and proved to be a difference maker.
"I don't think people realize how quick they are," said Westford coach Russ Coward. "All of them, from the guards to the big kid, they're all very quick and attack the basket very well. We're a decently quick team but we just couldn't keep up with them and that was the difference honestly. We couldn't step out, we couldn't stop kids driving and they did a great job."