WORCESTER, Mass. -- The Braintree girls basketball team entered this season surrounded by a good amount of hype and preseason accolades attached to it.
Last year, the team made a deep run in the state playoffs and because it returned most of the same roster this year, it was expected to get over that hump and compete for the Division 1 state title.
The only team standing between it and that state title Saturday was Westford Academy, a team it already defeated a month before by 28 points.
With the stakes a little higher this time around and with both teams that much more familiar with one another, Braintree still came out on top, this time 57-46. It captured that elusive state championship.
“I’m just so happy for these kids, I think it’s so well-deserved,” said Braintree coach Kristen McDonnell. “It’s something that has been a little bit of a long time coming, but they’re so mature. They understand it’s game to game and that’s why this group has always been able to put themselves in a position for success.”
That success started early during Saturday’s game. Less than three minutes into the game, Bridget Herlihy (14 points, 10 rebounds) hit the first of her four first-half threes to make it 9-2. Westford took a timeout, but the pressure mounted.
As it struggled to find any offense besides Sam Hyslip (24 points, 10 rebounds), Braintree continued to rack up the points. Hyslip had 12 of Westford’s 15 points with less than three minutes to go in the half.
Herlihy hit three more three’s in the second quarter, which helped Braintree extend it’s lead well into double-digits.
“I didn’t know what was going on to be honest,” said the junior. “I’ve always been kind of a shooter, but more of a driving guard than a shooting guard. For that to happen (her to shoot that well), I didn’t really believe it. But I figured if I was making them, why not take more?”
Westford caught a bit of a break early in the third quarter. Less than two minutes into the second half, Brianna Herlihy (Bridget’s younger sister, 11 points, 8 rebounds) picked up her fourth foul, which forced her to the bench. Three minutes later, starting center Mary Reagan (4 points, 8 rebounds) was called for a moving pick, also her fourth foul. Suddenly, Braintree was without two of its starters as Westford cut the lead from 14 down to 10.
Even with the personnel advantage, the Grey Ghosts were never able to get within 8 points of the Wamps.
“I think that’s a tribute to our depth,” said McDonnell. “I think these kids came ready to play off the bench today. They did a really good job in the time when we almost needed to buy time for the starters to sit. We were lucky to get through that run and get our kids back out there.”
Russell asserts herself: There is no telling what Braintree would be like if it did not have Ashley Russell on the team. She was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for a reason, and she showed it Saturday. While her team-high 17 points obviously played a role in the victory, it was her rebounding on both ends of the floor that could easily go unnoticed. As a 5-foot-9 guard on a team with three starters listed taller than her, it would not be seen as a weakness in her game if she did not crash the boards as effectively as she does.
However, there she was Saturday being a textbook playing technique by following her missed shots and creating second-chance opportunities for herself and her teammates.
“We knew they (Westford) was really good on the boards and did some great work in the paint,” said Russell. “Every time we took a shot, I knew we could attack them if we tried to get offensive rebounds so I would run in and try to get the ball every time we shot it.
“In practice, we prepared for that. We always have a bunch of rebounding drills and we scrimmage against very athletic boys on our scout team. So playing against them, it helps a lot. It’s good practicing against Bridget, Brianna, and Molly who are so tall. And honestly, just wanting to win just makes me want to get the ball because I want the ball, and then everything else just happens.”
Hyslip ends with high marks: Saturday marked the end of a prolific high school career for Westford Academy’s Sam Hyslip. Earlier this season, the senior joined the storied 1,000 point club. For a large portion of the game against Braintree, she was her team’s only offense. Her 10 points were Westford’s only points for the first quarter and a half. She had 14 of Westford’s 19 points at halftime and finished with 24 of the team’s 46 in the game.
“We couldn’t get shots from some of the supporting cast like we have over the rest of the playofffs,” said Westford Academy coach Russ Coward. “I think that’s a credit to how good Braintree’s defense is and how tough it is when you have four kids on the court that are almost six feet or taller. They put a lot of pressure on you. We got no open shots tonight. That was probably the big difference.”
Things seemed bleak for Westford when Hyslip picked up her fourth foul with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter. She was sent to the bench for what many expected to be at least until the end of the quarter. However, Coward showed trust in his senior co-captain and inserted her back into the game with 1:18 left in the third. She converted a quick turnaround basket in the lane to trim Braintree’s lead to 11 at the end of the quarter.
Bridget Herlihy was matched up on Hyslip for a majority of the game. Having played them already once this season, she knew she was going to have a difficult task on on her hands. Her respect for Hyslip’s game and the matchup problem she created grew even more after Saturday.
“She’s really good,” said Herlihy. “I knew coming into the game if I was going to cover her, the one thing I couldn’t do was foul. I think I did do that, but in doing that I had to give up some points which I normally wouldn’t want to. She was really good and I’m glad I got to battle with her because I think that will make us both better players to be able to compete like that.”
So...What’s next? Braintree will graduate only one senior off it’s starting five, so it is not out of the realm of possibility to see them back again at the DCU Center playing for another state title. The girls will be more experienced and not have the state title monkey on its back heading into the season. However, that is a long ways away and many things have to fall into place correctly for that to happen. The team is going to enjoy this win, but now knows what it will take to get back where it wants to be.
“We’re definitely going to relish in this glory for a while,” said Russell. “But when it comes time for preseason, we’re just going to get right back at it. We’re not going to say oh just because we got there last year, we’re going to get right back there again. We’re going to take it one game at a time next year, and we’re not going to let up again next year. So hopefully we’re going to be able to get back here and experience this again.”