The Merrimack Valley High girls basketball team scored just 24 points through 3 quarters in their D-II semi-final game vs. #1 seed Milford. But the Pride scored more points in the 4th than they did in the first 3 quarters combined, going off for 27 points in the final quarter and went on to the 51-43 win.
"It's a great feeling" said Merrimack Valley senior forward Mary Mullen, a four-year varsity player. "We knew it was going to be a battle. But we just had a feeling in our gut that it's our turn."
It was a highly competitive, back-and-forth game with a ton of lead changes. Milford led 32-31 late in the 4th. Then junior guard Cassidy Huckins hit the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer from the left wing to put MV back on top 34-32. Milford answered right back as fearless freshman Erin McGuire hit a 15-footer to tie it up 34-34. Then came another huge play for the Pride, as they got a steal and then senior guard Emily Mulleavey zipped a pass over to Mullen for a fast break layup and a 36-34 MV lead.
MV increased their lead, as 5-foot-11 sophomore sensation Mayson Kimball (17 points and 11 rebounds) turned and scored inside for a 38-35 Pride lead. Milford came right back, as junior forward Rebecca Cleary drives to the rim and lays it in, so the MV lead is down to 38-37. Kimball gets to the line, hits 2 free throws and it's 40-37. Cleary again scored inside to cut the lad back down to 1, 40-39 with just 1:50 left in regulation.
Again Merrimack Valley made their FTs - this time it was Huckins who knocked down a pair to push the lead back to 42-39. Timeout on the floor, and out of the timeout Milford has the ball still trailing 42-39. The Spartans hadn't been shooting well from the outside all game, but the one kid who did hit a 3 for them was junior forward Jessica Ryan. Out of the timeout Ryan had a good look at a 3 from the top of the key. The shot went in and then back out, MV got the ball back and Mulleavey made 1 of 2 FTs. She missed the second free throw, but Kimball grabbed the offensive rebound and scored the put-back. Just like that the Pride went up 45-39 with just 53 seconds left. They held on from there for the 51-43 win.
"Definitely hitting our free throws down the stretch was the difference" said Merrimack Valley head coach David Huckins, the father of Cassidy Huckins. "We also hit some other big shots. Cassie hit that 3, Mary scored on the give-and-go and Mayson scored right after."
Milford made a spirited rally at the end of the 3rd quarter to take the lead heading to the 4th. MV led 20-12 at halftime, then increased their lead on a great play by Kimball. She ripped down a rebound, started the fast break herself by pushing the ball up the floor. She then dished it over to the wing, cut to the rim, got the ball back and finished strong inside. That gave MV their largest lead of the game, 22-14.
That's when Milford made their run. The run started with defense, as senior wing Brianna Hoffman made a nice block after getting back in transition. McGuire and Cleary bot scored quick buckets inside, then freshman guard Devany Pitsas scored an and-1 off a loose ball. Her older sister Adelle Pitsas made a strong drive inside, got fouled and made both FTs to tie it up 24-24. Milford got a steal, McGuire pushed it quickly up the floor and banked in a leaner from just inside the foul line with 2 seconds left in the quarter. The Spartans had just gone on a 12-2 run to end the quarter, they had their first lead of the game, an their fans were going nuts!
"The 3rd quarter was huge, we were resilient and battled back" said Milford head coach Steve Signor, who took over a program that had previously struggled and has now got them to back-to-back Final Fours. "We had some nice high post rolls which worked."
One key to the run for Milford was they were doing a better job of not letting MV get the ball into the post to Kimball and Mullen. As a result the Pride were being forced to take outside shots, which they weren't hitting. MV re-takes the lead 27-26 on a pair of free throws by Huckins. Adelle Pitsas makes a pair of foul shots, and Milofrd goes back on top 28-27. The free throw contest continued, as Mullen made 2 more and Merrimack Valley re-takes the lead 29-28. Right after that Huckins hits another big shot with a 15-footer as MV increases their lead to 31-28.
"We had too many fouls in the 3rd and 4th" lamented Coach Signor. "That gave them lots of free throws. Some of our fouls were in the back court too, and then they went to the line. That's too many points we let them get without having to work for it."
The Spartans answered back, as Devany Pitsas hit a shot inside, followed by 2 clutch FTs by Cleary to put Milford back in the lead 32-31. That's when Huckins hit her huge 3-pointer, and you know how the rest went.
"We run so much in practice" explained Mullen. "Near the end Coach told us to look at them because they were tired and we weren't. I feel like I could still play another quarter right now."
What about the 1st half? Kimball got MV off to a strong start with a couple quick buckets, one inside and the other on a fast break pull-up jumper. Mullen hit a 15-footer to make it 6-2 Pride, then Kimball made a nice weak side block. Erin Frost cut back door, caught the pass and hit a leaner to make it 8-2 MV. MV was playing really tough, pressure defense and Milford was struggling to hit shots. It was 10-4 Merrimack Valley after 1.
"You have to give credit to them" said Signor, who was gracious in defeat. "They came came out with energy and they finished with energy. We also missed four uncontested layups early."
In the 2nd quarter the points were again few and far between. Frost made a great hustle play going after a loose ball, jumping out of bounds to save the ball from going out, while knocking it over to a teammate. Mulleavey hit a 3 to put MV up 14-8, but then Ryan answered right back with a 3 of her own to cut the lead to 14-11. Merrimack Valley increased their lead to 16-11 as Olivia Thurber cut back door and Mullen hit her with a pass for a layup. Morganne Waldo entered the game for the first time for MV and immediately hit a turnaround jumper, and Kimball converted a put-back to make it 20-12 MV at halftime.