LOWELL, Mass. –- For the seniors on the St. Mary’s girls basketball team, things have now come full circle since they were freshman.
Four years ago, the Spartans reached the Garden and went on to win the Division 3 state title. Now, after St. Mary’s 47-45 win over Winthrop in the MIAA Division 3 North final, they will return to the Garden for the first time since their 2011 state championship in the D3 EMass Final.
It was the three seniors for St. Mary’s leading the charge as Brianna Rudolph (15 points), Jennie Mucciarone (12 points) and Sharell Sanders (10 points) combined for 37 of the Spartans’ 47 points to claim the D3 North crown.
It may not have been the best game for any of the three in their four years, but Mucciarone bailed them out with some clutch baskets, especially in the second half.
“She hit some big shots today,” St. Mary’s coach Jeff Newhall said. “I thought in the second half when we needed big shots she got it. She made some free throws for us too. She’s been fighting it a little bit, but today when we needed her most she came through. It’s one of those things where we have three pretty dominant seniors and Sharell was having trouble moving and Brianna wasn’t her offense self, so Jennie stepped up and hit some big shots for us.”
St. Mary’s led 39-27, midway through the third quarter, but Sanders was forced from the game with an ankle injury. Winthrop took advantage going on a 9-3 run to end the quarter making it a 42-36 game going into the fourth.
It was a defensive battle in the final quarter with Sanders returning as the two teams combined for just three field goals in the last eight minutes.
“In the fourth quarter I thought we played pretty good half court defense and I thought we were on the verge of starting to go,” Newhall said. “We were up 12 and then Sharell twisted her ankle and changed the way we wanted to play on defense. We backed up into more of a half court defense than we normally would. Down the stretch we have to do a better job of finishing off our free throws.”
Going 3-for-6 from the line in the fourth, including missing the front end of two, back-to-back, one-and-one’s late in the game allowed Winthrop to get one last shot at the win, a half court shot at the buzzer, but it was off the mark allowing St. Mary’s to breath a sigh of relief.
“We had to gut it out, it wasn’t pretty, but when you’re in the Tsongas Center and the winner goes to the Garden and the loser has to go home to have a team meeting, it doesn’t really matter how it happens,” said Newhall.
St. Mary's never allowed their lead to get less than four until Winthrop scored with 3.7 seconds left, so despite the two-point spread, St. Mary's was in control of the game throughout.
Winthrop was led by sophomore Nina Bartlette who finished with a team-high 16 points, while senior Ashelyne Babb chipped in with 11.
“She’s tough to move,” Newhall said of Bartlette. “She has good hands and good power moves in the paint. I don’t know if there is a better sophomore in the state. She’s gotten a lot better. We played them in the Jamboree and then two weeks ago and then today. I’d say from the time we played her in the Jamboree to the last time we played her she got 300 times better and then from two weeks ago to today, 100 percent better.”
St. Mary’s moves on to play at the Garden Tuesday afternoon where having three of its top players already having that experience, it could give the Spartans a slight advantage.
“The last time we were there we had one day off, now we have two days off. Our seniors played there as freshman, I’m not saying that means they are experienced as Paul Pierce, but it could take a little bit of the edge off,” Newhall said. “For some of the younger kids, it will be an exciting time. I mean not many people get to play there except the NCAA regional and the Celtics.”
MAKE YOUR FREE THROWS
St. Mary’s used its ability to get to the line and then knock the shots down to their advantage in the first half, going 12-for-17 (71 percent) from the charity stripe. But, then went 6-for-13 (46 percent) in the second half to allow the Vikings to get back into the game and actually have a chance at the win with a desperate half court heave.
“It was good in the beginning, it helped us pull ahead in the beginning, but it kept them in the game at the end,” Newhall said. “It’s high school girls basketball so it comes and goes … I thought they shot free throws better than us, I don’t know the percentages.”
For Winthrop they went 8-for-15 (53 percent) in the first half, but as Newhall eluded to, their free throw shooting, along with St. Mary’s struggles allowed them to get back in the game late as they went 7-for-7 in the second half.