WORCESTER, Mass. -- As the final seconds ticked off on Saturday evening’s Div. 1 state championship game at the DCU Center, Braintree coach Kristen McDonnell could hardly contain her emotions as she spoke with her seniors.
“Yeah...I lost it,” she admitted. “They seemed OK and were helping me through it.”
The Wamps finished off a perfect 25-0 season, went start to finish as the consensus No. 1 team in the state, won a second consecutive state title and continued the discussion about whether or not this could be the best girls’ basketball team in state history with a dominating 64-43 win against Springfield Central.
At the end of the game, celebrations were coupled with the realization that a special group of players had played their last game together.
McDonnell continued, “They had a good basis that laid that foundation…and they just took it to another level in their desire to win and their desire to win in a classy way with high character…They’re an incredible group.”
Senior forward Molly Reagan reflected, “It’s definitely both happy and sad. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m not going to be playing another game with these girls and happy because so few teams get to end on a win.”
The Wamps came into the final as heavy favorites over the undersized Eagles and made sure to stamp their authority on the game right from the tip. Braintree jumped out to a 17-2 lead in the first quarter with sophomore Keelah Dixon scoring seven of her 10 points and four of the five starters contributing points.
“We talk about trying to throw the first punch and I thought our kids did a great job especially on defense,” said McDonnell. “It made our offense at first and gave us some easy buckets.”
Central cut the lead to 18-8 at the end of one thanks to a pair of threes by sophomore Sha’raya Haines Hughes (10 points), but the momentum was short-lived as Braintree exploded for 25 points in the second to break the game wide open.
Reagan would get going with six of her 13 in the quarter, including one layup off a great wrap around feed by Bridget Herlihy (five points, nine rebounds, and four assists). Brianna Herlihy also added six as Braintree took the ball into the paint against the Eagles, which had no player over 5-foot-9.
Senior point guard Ashley Russell, recently named the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year for the second season in a row, scored 12 of her 14 points in the opening half. She also kept the Wamps offense flowing against the scrambling pressure defense of the Eagles, who tried to push the tempo as often as possible.
Russell said, “We knew they were going to be playing up on us and trying to steal every ball. We just tried to stay calm…all of us tried to call out plays and we tried to slow it down and play our game and not get into their fast pace.”
Reagan added, “We’ve played together for so long, like over 10 years now, that it’s almost a sixth sense knowing where someone is going to be open down low.”
Braintree led 43-20 at halftime. Coming out of the break, Central scored the first six points all by freshman Makayla Thompson (team-high 12 points). Braintree answered right back with Brianna herlihy scoring eight points all on layups. Central would get four from sophomore Alayah Sweeney and actually won the third 14-13.
“We said that the only way that we could compete with them was to outwork them and I don’t think we did that in the first half,” said Eagles coach Erik Maurer. “We settled in a little bit better, but I think that had a lot to do with the fact that they weren’t playing as intense as they had in the first half.”
Maurer, who coached at East Longmeadow when the Spartans made it to the state championship game and faced Andover led by Nicole Boudreau, called this Braintree team one of the best he has ever faced.
The legacy that this crop of seniors is leaving extends beyond Braintree, but it is not a topic that the Wamps have spent a lot of time thinking about this season.
Russell said, “We tried to live up to that but we didn’t try to prove anything. We didn’t think about this game at the beginning of the season, we just thought about winning our league and then winning each game in the tournament one-by-one.”
“We don’t really think about because we’ve always just been playing together but it’s an honor to be considered for that,” said Reagan. She added, “We can’t think about it as a team because you can never go into a season or a game knowing something is going to happen…I think we just kept it in our heads all season to ignore the pressure that people were putting on us.”
The Wamps will leave it to the pundits to decide where they stand in history, but as Braintree walked off the DCU Center court on Saturday there was no disputing this was the best team in the state right now.