NEWARK – When Concord traveled to Ursuline for the final game of the regular season, Ursuline ran out to a 21-5 lead, but Concord played evenly the rest of the way in a 50-41 Ursuline win. The teams met again Thursday night in the second semifinal of the girls’ state basketball tournament, and this time the Concord Raiders stayed close the entire night. It wasn’t enough, however, as No. 1 Ursuline took a 40-35 decision to advance to the state championship game for the second consecutive season.
Ursuline will meet No. 2 Sanford for the title Friday night at 7 p.m. Sanford got there following a 65-37 win over No. 18 Conrad.
Concord’s quick defenders forced Ursuline into an uncharacteristic 11 first-half turnovers, and the UA Raiders led by just a single point at halftime. They tightened up their ballhandling after intermission, finally built a two-possession lead, and held on as Concord fought its way back.
After Aaliyah Selby gave No. 4 Concord a 22-20 lead 90 seconds into the third quarter, Ursuline took the lead for good. Kailyn Kampert, who led UA with 12 points, scored on a layup. After Concord missed a shot and two free throws, Kryshell Gordy gave Ursuline the lead with an old-fashioned three-point play. Kampert hit another layup after a steal, and it was 27-22.
Concord would get as close as a point at 31-30 when Jamiyah Dennis opened the fourth with a layup, but Ursuline scored the next six points and held Concord without a point for more than six minutes. UA was good enough at the free throw line down the stretch to keep Concord at bay.
“I think we were just playing a little panicked,” Kampert said. “We obviously had a lot of turnovers and weren’t hustling back on defense, so I think in the third quarter we had to come out really strong.
“We normally like to push the ball and go fast, but our halfcourt offense, when we run them right and are patient and execute, work really well, so I think we tried to do that in the second half.”
Ursuline coach John Noonan said the difference between the halves was effort. At halftime, he told his team “that they were playing harder than we were, plain and simple. They were playing it harder, they wanted it more, and we were going to have to earn it. That was the message. It wasn’t an Xs and Os thing, it was just effort and be smart.”
Ursuline held an 11-8 lead after one quarter but was trailing, 17-14, following a seven-point Concord run that featured a three-pointer and a layup by Selby sandwiched around a Caroline Procak layup off a sweet feed from Holly Panchak. That is when Concord made the decision to employ a stall-ball offense, even with Ursuline committing the first-half turnovers and point guard Alisha Lewis sitting on the bench virtually the entire second quarter in foul trouble.
Noonan said the Concord strategy caught him by surprise.
“I was really surprised. Not so much at the beginning. I figured they would want to shorten the game because they won two of four quarters against us, and one was tied. We had a really big first quarter,” he said. “I think they figured if they could make it a half-court game it would work to their advantage.”
Maggie Connolly ended a scoring drought of more than four minutes for UA with a free throw, and she nailed a three-pointer with 55 seconds remaining to give her Raiders the lead by a point at the half. Concord had two chances to retake the lead but could not convert.
Looking ahead to Friday, Noonan said he and his staff will have to find a way to stop Sanford’s size inside in the form of Samantha Pollich and Kendra Warren, along with the scoring of Chrishyanah Alston. “We have to talk about how to defend the post. Rebounding and defense, that’s what wins championships.”
For Kampert, Friday marks the final game of a five-year high school career with the Raiders, and she is appreciative of the opportunity to play for her third championship.
“It means a lot to me. You have to put everything on the line. Coming into halftime this game, I knew it could have been my last game,” she said.