Thursday, March 13, 2014

Londonderry Squeaks Past Rival Pinkerton in Semis

By: Jeremy Leveille
Pinkerton and Londonderry is one of the biggest rivalries in the state, and on Thursday night at SNHU they matched up in the girls basketball Division I semi-finals. They are evenly matched teams who split the 2 meetings they had during the regular season. As expected this was a tight game that went down to the wire. In the end though it was a last second win for the Lancers and a heartbreaking loss for the Astros as Londonderry came out on top 42-38.

With under 2 minutes left Pinkerton led 38-36, but Londonderry scored the game's final 6 points to pull off the win. Lancers junior Brittany Roche hit a clutch 3-pointer to put her team on top 39-38. Then sophomore guard Jackie Luckhardt made a huge steal on one end of the floor followed by a pair of big free throws on the other. Pinkerton had the ball down 41-38 with a chance to tie it with a 3, but Kayla Stacy's 3-point attempt was no good.

"If I'm open I'll take the shot" Roche said after hitting what might end up being the biggest shot of her life. "Aliza went in for a shot but had people on her. She passed it to me and I was wide open."

Londonderry will meet Bedford in the D-I title game back at SNHU on Sunday night at 6. Bedford is 21-0 and crushed Nashua North 68-31 in the first semi-final.

With the Lancers' win, the coaching career of legend John Fagula and the playing career of 2013-2014 Gatorade Player of the Year Aliza Simpson were both extended for one more game. After 32 years coaching and 11 state championships Fagula is retiring at the end of the season. Simpson is one of the best players to come out of NH in recent years and will be playing at UNH next year.

Pinkerton tied it up 36-36 on on a clutch 3-pointer by Stacy (12 points) from the right wing with 3:21 left in regulation. The Astros got the ball right back with a chance to take the lead. It was a long possession, as Pinkerton patient worked the ball around for a shot. Londonderry was playing tough defense, though. Finally Stacy got a step on her defender and exploded to the rim for a strong drive and finish to put her team on top 38-36.

Just seconds later though is when Roche drilled her 3 to put Londonderry back ahead 39-38. It was a huge shot for the 5-foot-11 forward. Now Pinkerton had the ball with 1:30 left, trailing 39-38. Astros senior guard Brandi Bonneau flashed to the ball in the post. Teammate Val Martin threw a pass in to her, but Luckhardt jumped in front and stole the ball - a huge steal for the speedy, scrappy sophomore.

"I was guarding her on a switch" explained Luckhardt. "We were used to them doing those cuts, so I just had a feeling that's what they were going to do. I saw it coming."

Luckhardt then got fouled and made a pair of clutch free throws to increase the Lancers lead to 41-38.

"I just tried to block out the noise, focus on the rim and took a deep breathe" Luckhardt said.

Simpson and junior forward Casey Evans are the star players for the Lancers. Both had 11 points and played well on both ends of the floor. Simpson is still recovering from a knee injury suffered during the season. But it was role players like Roche and Luckhardt who really stepped up tonight.

"Luckhardt is our most improved player in this group" commented Coach Fagula. "She's definitely a tough kid and a good defender. She got some good experience playing the 1 when Aliza was injured. So now she can play the 1 or the 2."

Londonderry led 18-17 at halftime, but then senior wing Colleen Fortier found an opening in the Lancers' 2-3 zone and scored inside to put the Astros back up 19-18. Stacy then hit a 3-pointer nothing but net, but just seconds later Londonderry pushed the ball back up the floor and senior forward Taylor Collins made a layup to tie it up 22-22. Just a few seconds after that Martin hit s 3 of her own and the Astros re-take the lead 25-22.

A strong drive and finish by Stacy gave PA a 27-24 lead. Unfortunately right after that Stacy picked up her 4th foul and had to sit for the next 6 minutes. Martin was also on the bench with 3 fouls. Since these 2 teams are so evenly matched, the fact that Stacy and Martin both sat out several key minutes in the 2nd half was a big factor in the outcome of this game.

Simpson made a nice hesitation move on the break, hitting a layup and Londonderry re-takes the lead 28-27. Bonneau connected on a pair of free throws and it was tied up 29-29. Stacy's younger sister, sophomore guard Marissa Stacy, stepped in to draw a charge on Simpson and it was her 3rd foul. Melissa Martel, who hit the game-winning shot in Pinkerton's quarterfinal win over BG, hit a 3-pointer with 5 seconds left in the quarter and it was 32-29 Astros after 3.

Early in the 4th Londonderry senior Jordan Marett checked in for the first time all game. She immediately made an impact, grabbing an offensive rebound and finishing the put-back and-1. Then Evans made a great post move, with a drop step and hit a turnaround shot in the lane showing a soft touch on her shot for an and-1 of her own. That gave Londonderry the lead back 34-33, and then Evans made a nice dish to Luckhardt for a layup and a 36-33 Lancers' lead. That's when Stacy tied it back up 36-36 with a 3, and you know how the rest went.

"I was very pleased" said Fagula, who was wearing his championship ring from his Nashua High team that he coached to a state title and a #1 ranking in the country. "We put in some serious time preparing for this game. We knew what they were going to do."

This was a close, back and forth game the whole way. Londonderry broke the Pinkerton press, creating a 2-on-1 opportunity the other way. Luckhardt made a nice dish to Collins for the layup. The Astros answered right back as senior Andrea Albrecht made a strong finish for an and-1. Then Simpson buried a 3-pointer plus the foul for a 4-point play and it was 10-5 Londonderry. That's the biggest lead either team had all game.

Pinkerton tied it right back up though, as Bonneau hit a 15-footer followed by a 3 from the right corner and it was 10-10. It was 12-12 after 1.

Fortier drew a charge on Simpson, then on the other end hit a 3-pointer to put Pinkerton up 15-12. Londonderry countered, as Simpson dished to Evans who powered her way towards the basket for 2. Stacy picked up her 3rd foul with 2:54 left in the 2nd quarter and sat the rest of the quarter. Simpson hit a pair of free throws to cap a 6-0 run by Londonderry as the Lancers now led 18-15. Evans drew a charge on Martin, and it was 18-17 Londonderry at halftime.

Pinkerton had a good season, and if a play or 2 go differently then they're the ones moving on to the finals. Lani Buskey was able to get her team to the Final Four in her first season as head coach. The Astros graduate 4 of their 5 starters in Stacy, Bonneau, Fortier and Albrecht.

As for Londonderry, they move to the finals to take on the undefeated and stacked Bulldogs squad. Bedford will be trying to repeat as champs and complete and unbeaten season, while Londonderry will look to pull off the upset in the final high school game for Fagula and Simpson.

"It will be a competitive game" said Fagula. "We'll need to do 3 things in that game. One, we've got to be physical. Two, we can't give them extra plays by turning the ball over. And three, we need to match their intensity. Hopefully we show up physically and mentally."

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