WILMINGTON – Many of Padua’s basketball games this season have followed a familiar script, one that has frustrated coach Emily Grugan and her players. Despite a never-quit attitude, the Pandas have struggled to score early in games and have not been able to overcome the resulting deficits.
The Pandas returned to similar ground Jan. 7, trailing St. Mark’s, 9-4, after a quarter. They dominated the second before falling behind late in the third, and that feeling began to surround the team. But a 14-1 run over the first five minutes of the fourth catapulted host Padua to a 51-40 Catholic Conference win over the Spartans.
“We had a couple rough losses, and we knew we needed this win to keep the season going. We knew we could do it,” senior Mackenzie Scully said. “It feels amazing, proving that we can get back in it. We had a rough beginning of the season, but we’re proving to everyone that we can come back and we can win.”
The win was as necessary from a psychological standpoint as from the win-loss column, coach Emily Grugan added. “We needed this so bad. I knew we had it in us. I knew we could score. They practice so hard every day, the intensity at practice is so hard that we needed to just convert.”
The teams were tied at 32 with 5:35 to go when Spartans senior Kaitlynn Wolff hit one of two free throws. That would be St. Mark’s last point until the three-minute mark.
Padua’s definitive run was quick and lethal. Liv Craig tied it with a free throw. Gabby Julian delivered the decisive blow on the team’s next possession, draining a huge three-point shot from the top of the key. Julian, whose long-distance shot hasn’t fallen this season as often as she would prefer, let out a yell and pumped her right fist as she headed back on defense. Her coach was just as excited for her senior.
“That was huge,” Grugan said. “We needed that bad. It was a letter from home. I told her this is your last fight. You have one more fight in you, like Rocky. So I was so happy for her when she hit that shot. Good timing, too.”
Anastasia Mavridis got open for an easy hoop, and Scully hit two free throws. Meg Mallon and Craig finished the run with a field goal each, giving the Pandas a 44-33 lead before Kayla Wolff ended it with a pair of free throws for the Spartans. St. Mark’s scored eight points in the fourth; all came from the charity stripe. But the lack of points in the final quarter masked the effort put forth by the Spartans.
Padua led, 26-20, midway through the third when things started to fall St. Mark’s way. Kaitlynn Wolff scored five straight points on a free throw and two short jumpers, including one possession where Wolff grabbed a defensive rebound, threw the outlet pass and trailed the play up the court. An alert Kendra Schweizer found Wolff streaking behind the defense for the easy layup.
After Padua scored, Wolff fed her sister, Kayla, for another inside bucket, and again it was a one-point deficit. Those were the first two of seven straight points for Kayla; her second field goal put St. Mark’s ahead, 29-28, for the first time since early in the second quarter. Scully ended Kayla Wolff’s run with a field goal, but the Spartans led after three, 32-30.
St. Mark’s looked like it might put the game away early, and Grugan was not happy with her team’s effort. After Kara Dougherty caught a long inbounds pass and turned it into an easy layup, the Padua coach had seen enough. Just two minutes into the game, she called a timeout and pulled all five starters from the floor. They sat on the bench for two minutes. The message was clear, Scully said.
“We knew we really needed to pick it up. We were slacking, we weren’t trying our best and we needed to,” she said.
Grugan said the defensive game plan drawn up by the coaches wasn’t working, and she didn’t like the fact that Padua was falling into a familiar trap. “I just was not going to let that happen again,” she said. “As soon as I saw we weren’t doing our assignments, I had to make a change. And the second five that went on, they did their job and I’m proud of them.”
Scully led all scorers with 16 points, 14 in the second half. Mallon hit double figures with 12 before fouling out. Julian added eight. The Pandas have a tough assignment on Saturday, when they travel to St. Elizabeth for a 1:45 p.m. start.
The Wolff sisters led St. Mark’s, as Kayla scored 15 and Kaitlynn 12. The Spartans (2-5) are at A.I. DuPont on Saturday at noon.