WILMINGTON — The first time Caravel and St. Elizabeth met on the basketball court, the game was decided by a single point in overtime. That was not the case March 10 at the St. E Center, as the top-seeded Vikings eliminated the No. 4 Buccaneers in a DIAA girls semifinal game, 56-35.
The win sends the Vikings to the state championship game for the first time since 2014. They will meet the third seed, Sanford, on Friday at Dover High School.
Both teams struggled to get anything to fall in the early going. Caravel had multiple offensive rebounds, but they just could not finish. Neither team reached the scoreboard until Naia Pulliam hit a free throw two minutes into the first. Pulliam found Farrah White with a long outlet pass for a layup a minute later. After that, Pulliam took a steal and turned that into a layup and a 5-0 lead, and Buccaneers coach Kristin Caldwell called a timeout.
The action was fast, but the points did not follow. A lot of that was due to stellar defense from both teams. Caravel finally got on the board nearly six minutes into the contest as Taylor Wilkins went one for two from the free throw line.
Caravel would hit just one field goal in the quarter, a three-point shot from Julia Nask that cut the Vikings’ lead to 7-4, but the Vikings would outscore Caravel, 10-2, over the last minute and a half of the first. Rory Ciszkowski and Ericka Huggins hit three-pointers, while Pulliam connected from two on a shot that bounced twice off a friendly rim. The lead was 11 after one.
Olivia Lynch, when she wasn’t blanketing Caravel all-state guard India Johnston, was helping on the offensive end. Her lone field goal of the first half, a three-pointer, extended the Vikings’ lead to 20-6, but Caravel stuck around. The Bucs made six free throws in the quarter, and Johnston hit her first two shots of the night, including a three pointer. Still, the Vikings led by 10 at the break.
Pulliam said the main message from the coaching staff at halftime was to cut down on turnovers, which would help them solidify their lead.
“We knew we had to take care of the ball. We didn’t want to let up at all. We said we have two quarters left. It was our goal all season to make it to the championship, and we finally made it. We’re going to carry over what we had from this game to there,” she said.
That helped keep the ball from Caravel’s possessions and the lead at or near double digits. Lynch opened the second half with an old-fashioned three-point play, making the score 30-17.
Ciszkowski extended the advantage to 37-21 with a bank shot three with 2:30 to go in the third, but the Bucs showed some life. Johnston stole a pass and went end-to-end for a layup, and Wilkins added a field goal to cut the Vikings’ lead to 12 after three.
But it was all St. Elizabeth in the final quarter. Huggins turned a Bucs turnover into two points to start the scoring. The pounded the ball inside over and over, outscoring Caravel, 17-4, until the final minute of the game, when Anaya Price and Johnston each hit three-pointers.
Johnston finished with 14 points. In the first game between the teams, she had 32. Slowing her down was crucial, Pulliam said.
“We know she’s a great player and she can score at will. In order to shut the offense down, we knew we had to shut her down. We really took pride in our defense today, and that was the result,” she said.
Now, they’ll turn their attention to Sanford, a team they defeated, 62-57, on Jan. 21. Lynch is ecstatic to reach the final. As a freshman, she reached the semifinal when she attended St. Thomas More Academy, and the desire to go a round further has been there as long as she can remember.
“I’m as excited or more excited than any girl that plays basketball in the state. I used to watch Sanford play, watch Ursuline play, and I always wanted a ring,” she said.
Lynch had 15 points to lead four Vikings in double figures. Pulliam had 12, Huggins 11 and Ciszkowski 10 as St. Elizabeth improved to 13-0.
Wilkins had eight points for the Buccaneers, who finished the year 10-6.
All photos by Mike Lang.