DOVER — When Sanford took a six-point lead part of the way through the fourth quarter, the top-seeded St. Elizabeth Vikings did not panic. They focused, chipped away at the lead and eventually put themselves back on top. In the end, they had done enough, defeating the third-seeded Warriors, 47-45, for their sixth girls basketball state championship on March 12 at Dover High School.
Senior Naia Pulliam said the Vikings reminded themselves of what they had kept in mind all season.
“We’re not losing,” Pulliam said. “That’s what we were saying to ourselves all day. We refused to lose.”
They didn’t, but the win did not come easy.
The Warriors and Vikings battled all night, with a one-point St. Elizabeth halftime lead turning into a one-point deficit by the start of the fourth. That came on a driving scoop shot by Abby Meredith with three seconds to go. She was fouled and hit the free throw to complete the three-point play and put the Warriors ahead, 32-31. As the final stanza started, things got worse for St. Elizabeth before they got better.
Zy Kilgoe started the scoring with a three-point shot, and Jada Snow added a layup to push the advantage to six. After a Vikings timeout, they cut three points off the deficit with free throws, the teams traded baskets, and when Sanford made three free throws of their own, they held a 42-36 lead.
St. Elizabeth went to a pressure defense, and force Sanford to commit turnovers. Vikings coach Dan Cooney told his squad that if they were unable to cause turnovers, the Warriors would take the air out of the ball and make it nearly impossible to come back.
“When we put the press on, my kids did great,” he said.
The comeback began with a three-pointer by Pulliam. The senior was held to a single field goal in the first half as the Warriors clogged the middle, but she went outside for this bucket. A turnover in the backcourt by Sanford gave the ball back to the Vikings, and freshman Ericka Huggins finished the possession with a layup to pull St. E’s within one. The St. Elizabeth press caused another miscue, and that led to a free throw by Pulliam to knot the score at 42 with just over a minute to go.
Cooney was full of praise for Huggins. He said this was her first experience on a school team, and she had an impressive season. He said his team would not have won without her.
“She just really picked up basketball a few years ago, and she’s like a sponge. She listens to everything you say and does it. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to be like her senior year,” he said.
Huggins admitted to a few pregame butterflies. “Coming into the game, I was so nervous, but the outcome was exciting. It’s my first experience. I loved it. It’s amazing.”
Sanford’s Meredith drove the lane the next time up the court, but she lost the handle at the last moment. The Vikings took advantage, with the seniors Olivia Lynch and Pulliam teaming up on a pick and roll for the winning points. Pulliam set the pick for Lynch, then cut to the basket and received a perfect pass as she went up for a layup. She made the shot, was fouled and finished the old-fashioned three-point play with 24.9 seconds left. It ended a 9-0 run for St. Elizabeth.
“I know that Naia’s strong on the pick and roll, so we ran the pick and roll twice,” Lynch said. “Naia went to the line. She made her free throws, and we got into the one-and-one.
“That’s just the chemistry that Naia and I have. We built that over the season. I know her game so well, and she knows my game.”
Cooney had confidence in the duo to get the job done “knowing that they’re going to feed off each other. We had Rory (Ciszkowski) off on the wing incase they cheated off to be able to dump off to her. Naia did what she’s been doing all year and her whole career. She said at halftime, ‘Give me the ball.’”
Kilgoe made a free throw, but Lynch came up big under pressure. She hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it a two-possession game. Sanford made a layup with less than a second to go for the final margin.
Lynch said she had a feeling that something like that would happen.
“I had a dream that we were going to win this game on my free throws. I didn’t know if it was going to come true, but I did everything in my power to make it come true,” she said.
The Vikings were among the final four teams still alive last season when the season was stopped because of the coronavirus. There were six seniors on that team, and they were in the minds of this year’s team.
“Our season last year got cut short. We played for the people last year, the seniors,” sophomore Farrah White said.
After the game, which was played with limited spectators, the players called their former teammates to celebrate with them. The scene made coach Dan Cooney smile.
“It feels great,” said Cooney, an assistant the last time the Vikings won a championship in 2013. “I told them when I was hugging them at the end, ‘You made this 55-year-old man so happy.’ I’m so proud of them. What those kids had to endure this year, with having to wear a mask while they’re competing, I don’t know how they did it. Their response every time was, ‘This is what we have to do to play, so this is what we’re doing.’
“The feeling of watching them be happy, and smiling and crying, that’s what it’s about. It’s not really about my feeling.”
Ciszkowski said they wanted to finish the job they started last season. “We went 15-0. This is going down in history.”
Lynch finished a strong postseason with 14 points to lead the Vikings, while Pulliam had 13 and Huggins nine.
In addition to 2013, St. Elizabeth won titles in 1979, 1982, 1985, and 2007 before this year. Their last appearance in the championship game came in 2014, when they lost to Sanford.
For the Warriors, Kilgoe had 13. Snow and Dallas Pierce each added nine. Sanford completed the season 16-2.
Photos courtesy of Nick Halliday.