NEWARK – Ursuline had taken control of Friday night’s girls basketball state championship game against Sanford by shutting down the Warriors during the second and third quarters. With an 11-point lead heading into the fourth, it seemed all that stood between top-seeded Ursuline and the trophy was eight minutes.
But No. 3 Sanford (20-5) came alive in the fourth, twice pulling within one point. It was 35-34 Raiders after Warriors senior Chrishyanah Alston hit her fifth layup of the quarter with just 18 seconds to go. Ursuline sophomore Maggie Connolly, however, was perfect in six free throw attempts in the final minute, including four of four in the last 12 seconds, as the Raiders (20-5) prevailed, 39-34, for the school’s second consecutive basketball championship, third in the last five years and 16th overall.
Connolly was unflappable at the line. She said she tried to concentrate only on the rim despite the noise inside the Bob Carpenter Center.
“There was a lot of noise. I was trying to block it out and concentrate on making the shot,” said Connolly, who also made three of five shots from the field and led the Raiders with 12 points.
“(Shooting at the Carpenter Center) definitely takes some time to get used to, but this is my third year doing it, so I think my experience helped me.”
Ursuline coach John Noonan said he wanted Connolly handing the ball late in the game. She was the team’s best foul shooter, converting more than 80 percent of her attempts this season.
“She knocked them down. I don’t know that she touched the rim,” Noonan said. “She’s always played well on this floor. She’s a solid ballplayer. She’s got a great skill set. She’s smart, she plays tough, and she’s got self-confidence.”
Early in the second half, it appeared as if the game would not be decided in the final seconds. After Sanford freshman Samantha Pollich opened the third quarter with a layup that made it 17-14 Ursuline, the Raiders scored the next seven points. Kailyn Kampert, playing the final game of her five-year high school career, started the run with her only points of the night. The teams traded turnovers before Kryshell Gordy scored inside, and senior Alyssa Irons hit her second three-pointer of the night. The lead grew to 11 by the end of the third.
Sanford began its comeback immediately in the fourth. Alston, who finished with a game-high 15 points, hit two layups in the first minute, and after Ursuline answered with an Olivia Mason layup, freshman Kendra Warren scored an old-fashioned three-point play to bring Sanford within six.
Ursuline, in the meantime, went cold from the field and struggled with the Warriors’ press. The Raiders went more than three minutes between points, although good defense kept them ahead. They were able to burn some time off the clock because Sanford had to commit several fouls before going into the penalty, but the Warriors got to within 33-32 on a jumper by senior Taylor Samuels with 1:11 to go.
Noonan said Sanford deserves credit for its comeback. The Warriors are a big, athletic and aggressive team that was in the finals for a reason. They had him sweating throughout the fourth quarter.
“What’s going through my mind?” he asked. “Zeros. Get that clock to zero.”
Fortunately, Connolly was there to sink her free throws, and a three-point attempt by Samuels with six seconds left that would have tied the game was off the mark.
For Ursuline senior Kailyn Kampert, it was an emotional night. She has decided not to play basketball in college, so this was her last time on the big stage. She scored two points and was able to help cut down the nets for the third time. She said she has been getting over the death of her grandfather, but it helped to have her mother and grandmother in the stands. There were plenty of tears following the final buzzer.
“I obviously didn’t have the best game, but I had complete faith in my teammates. We pulled it out in the end, and I’m just so proud and so thankful to be a part of Ursuline basketball for five years,” she said.
“It’s an amazing feeling. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”