SPRINGFIELD >> Once Denae Carter turned a steal into a layup, St. Basil Academy’s girls basketball team was off and running.
It took nearly three minutes into Saturday’s AACA semifinal against Villa Maria Academy for either team to score, but the floodgates opened quickly for the Panthers. St. Basil scored the game’s first 15 points, kept finding open shots and let its defense do the rest.
Behind their strong start, the top-seeded Panthers topped the No. 4 seed Hurricanes 45-36 at La Salle College High School to advance to their fourth straight AACA title game.
“We usually get in foul trouble against them but this game, we had to maintain our fouls,” Carter said. “We knew toward the end of the game, they’d go to Maddy Ryan, so we wanted to double down on that. Overall, we just tried to play straight up and get the ball back in our hands.”
Saturday’s matchup was actually a rematch of the last three AACA finals and the three-time defending champion Panthers knew they had to be at their best defensively. Despite losing Columbia recruit Paige Lauder all season due to injury, the Hurricanes are still big and talented so they weren’t going to be an easy out.
Carter poked away a steal to open the scoring with 5:16 left, Lizzie Deal had another steal leading to free throws and Carter turned another takeaway into a layup by the 3:30 mark of the opening frame. Deal and Carter combined for the first nine points of the game before Hannah Hunter hit a three and Deal followed with a longball for a 15-0 start.
“We got around their players in the post, we cut through the open pass lanes and if there was a skip pass, we were able to deflect it and get a runout in transition,” Carter, who had three first quarter steals, said.
Maddy Ryan finally got Villa Maria on the board with a three-point play off a drive, but Riley Scannell answered with a long two at the buzzer for a 17-3 Panthers edge after a quarter. A 7-0 run by the Hurricanes in the second sliced the lead to 19-10, but the defending champions answered with six straight and held a 25-12 lead at the break.
Villa Maria turned the ball over five times in the first quarter which certainly didn’t help, but the Hurricanes also couldn’t buy a basket for much of the first half. The Hurricanes shot 1-of-8 in the first and 4-of-10 in the second despite getting plenty of good shots.
“We couldn’t put the ball in the basket at all, we were really flat on offense but I’m proud of the kids, they didn’t quit,” VMA coach Kathy McCartney said. “We got the shots we wanted from the people we wanted to take them and we didn’t hit them. You have days like that.”
The Hurricanes won the aggregate score of the second, third and fourth quarters but St. Basil won the third frame 14-8 with four different players scoring at least a basket. Seven of the eight Panthers who got minutes scored and the ball kept finding open players through three quarters.
Panthers coach Terry Mancini noted the challenge of playing a team three times, especially one like Villa that’s seen a lot of St. Basil the past three years. For the most part, he liked what his team did on both ends of the floor save for the last few minutes when the Hurricanes started to pressure and caused some turnovers.
“We went up 19 and maybe you start to think the game is over,” Mancini said. “That’s where you give Villa credit, I knew they weren’t going to quit. I give Kathy a ton of credit for doing what they’ve done after losing their best player.”
Carter said she and her teammates approached Saturday like it was the league championship game given the past three seasons and that helped their energetic start. The junior forward, who led all scorers with 14 points, said the Panthers did a lot of shooting work this week and everyone came in confident to take theirs when the ball came their way.
“That allowed us to get on the scoreboard pretty effectively,” Carter said. “It’s really a team effort, when someone’s doing well, you get them the ball when you can or they’ll get you the ball when you’re going well. We make the extra pass, we try to run with each other and we do a good job with that.”
Villa Maria got within 41-29 in the final two minutes before Kelly Grant hit two free throws and Carter scored on a drive the next possession down the floor to essentially ice the outcome.
The Hurricanes are currently sitting in the No. 4 spot for the District 1-5A playoffs and will regroup and get ready to try and defend last year’s district title. McCartney wasn’t worried about her team’s mentality going into the district tournament, especially with the effort they showed throughout Saturday’s game.
“It’s something we’ve been preaching all year, the scoreboard doesn’t matter, just play hard all the time,” McCartney said. “I think we did that today. They earned some home games by playing the whole body of work for the year.”
St. Basil will also try to defend its District 1-3A title later this month but first, they’re trying to go for the four-peat in the AACA. Standing in their way is No. 2 seed Mount Saint Joseph in the title game set for 7 p.m. Wednesday back at La Salle.
“We know it’s never going to be an easy game and we have to give it our all no matter what,” Carter said. “Although we have been here a couple times, it’s always going to be a title you have to prove you can win, so that always takes a big effort.”
ST. BASIL 45, VILLA MARIA 36
ST. BASIL 17 8 14 6 – 45
VILLA MARIA 3 9 8 16 – 36
St. Basil: Kelly Grant 0 4-4 4, Samantha White 3 0-0 7, Lizzie Deal 3 1-2 8, Denae Carter 6 2-2 14, Hannah Hunter 2 0-0 6, Riley Scannell 2 1-2 6, Shannon Remolde 0 0-1 0. Totals: 13 8-11 45.
Villa Maria: Jackie Ford 2 1-4 5, Morgan Warley 1 0-2 2, Maddy Ryan 5 2-3 12, Myla Warley 1 0-0 2, Corina Chieffalo 2 0-0 5, Faith Iacone 3 0-0 7, Peyton Tague 1 0-0 3. Totals: 15 3-9 36.
3-pointers: SBA – Hunter 2, Scannell, White, Deal; VMA – Iacone, Tague.
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