WILMINGTON – When late February rolls around and Ursuline’s basketball team is fighting for a return trip to the Bob Carpenter Center, it will use games like the one against St. Rose (N.J.) on Dec. 29 to summon the grit required at playoff time. The Raiders withstood a late rally to defeat the Purple Roses, 54-51, and advance to the championship of the St. Francis Healthcare Cup, the national bracket of the Diamond State Classic.
The game was played in front of a near-sellout crowd at the St. E Center. It’s the kind of opponent and atmosphere that serves the Raiders well come state tournament time, coach John Noonan said.
“I think our kids, when they get into those pressure situations, they’ve been in them. They’ve played quality opponents their entire careers. We feel like we’re battle-tested, and we came out on the right end today,” he said.
Ursuline held a 50-42 lead when St. Rose’s Elizabeth Marsicano drilled a three-point shot with 3:13 to go. The Purple Roses regained possession after a timeout, and Mikayla Markham scored. They forced a Raiders turnover, and Marsicano capitalized, and suddenly the lead was just a single point.
St. Rose had several opportunities to take the lead thanks to its height advantage, but they could not deliver. Raiders sophomore guard Alisha Lewis gave her team some breathing room with a field goal with less than a minute remaining, but the Purple Roses answered.
They had one more chance to tie after Yanni Hendley committed a foul 60 feet from the basket, but the front end of the one-and-one clanged off the rim. Maggie Connolly calmly sank two free throws, and St. Rose’s desperation attempt at the buzzer was no good. Hendley said she was relieved that her foul did not cost the Raiders a win.
“I knew that (Noonan) was going to say a lot if she made the free throws. I knew I would have an earful. I was being aggressive and they called the foul,” she said.
Noonan said Hendley, a sophomore, could be a special athlete for Ursuline. He added that she received encouragement at practice on Wednesday from a visitor, former Raiders standout Elena Delle Donne.
“She’s a tremendous athlete,” Noonan said of Hendley.
The Purple Roses, who defeated Ursuline in last year’s Diamond State, came into the game ranked nationally by some media outlets, but it was the Raiders who started out on fire. Lewis scored her first two points before spending most of the first quarter on the bench after committing two fouls, but Connolly picked up the scoring slack. She hit two free throws, a nice scoop shot in the lane and a runner to stake Ursuline to an 8-0 lead.
St. Rose fought back with seven straight points before the Raiders’ Kryshell Gordy ended the run, but Ellyn Stoll tied the game with her second three-pointer of the quarter. The Purple Roses took their first lead toward the end of the first, but senior Kiara Stovall provided a spark off the bench for Ursuline by tying the game with a buzzer-beating baseline jumper.
The Raiders are as deep as any team in Delaware, and Noonan is grateful to have a player like Stovall available.
“Kiara Stovall comes in for like 14 seconds, and she gets the ball in the corner and recognizes the situation. She took the shot, and the shot dropped. In a one-point or a three-point game, how big is that basket?” he asked.
“I’m so happy for her. She’s a senior, and she’s waited and waited, and she practices hard, so God bless her.”
A back-and-forth second quarter provided some entertaining basketball. St. Rose scored four points to open the stanza, but Ursuline answered with six straight. A three by Markham ended a seven-point stretch for the Purple Roses, giving them their biggest lead of the day at 23-18. But Gordy made a free throw to start an 12-0 streak for Ursuline stretching over the end of the first half and beginning of the second.
The lead grew to 12, at 39-27, but St. Rose would not go away. Markham hit a three-point shot, and Jen Louro added an old-fashioned three-point play. When Luciana Thomas scored to open the fourth quarter, the Ursuline lead was 39-38. But Hendley hit a baseline jumper, and Connolly nailed another runner, and the Raiders were on their way to the exciting finish and a win.
“We needed to settle down, take our time and execute as a team,” Lewis said. “I know I messed up a couple of times, and our team just brought us together, and we played as a team.”
Connolly led the Raiders (5-1) with 15, and Lewis added 13. Hendley and Gordy had nine each. Ursuline will meet Roland Park Country Day School (Md.) for the St. Francis Healthcare Cup on Friday at 4:15 p.m.
“We haven’t won since Delle Donne, and we really want to win this year. That’s what we’re looking for,” Hendley said.
Thomas was one of three Purple Roses in double figures. She had 15. Markham had 12, and Stoll had 10, all in the first half. They will play in the third-place game against Ventura (Calif.) at 2:45 p.m.