What a run for the Winnacunnet High girls basketball team. All season long they were a middle of the pack team in D-I. At one point they were only 5-6. But it's not how you start but how you finish. And this is a team playing their best basketball at the right time of year.
The Warriors were only a #9 seed entering the tournament. They went on the road and beat Memorial in the 1st round, and in the quarterfinals they upset #1 seed Bedford. Then on Monday night in the semis they made a resilient 4th quarter comeback to beat #5 seed Pinkerton 48-41, advancing to the championship game with a third consecutive win over a higher seeded team.
"We knew what we had to do in the 2nd half" said Winnacunnet junior forward Meg Knollmeyer, who had 11 points, 22 rebounds and 4 blocks. "We had to come out harder than in the 1st half and we did. We have bonded so well and grown so much as a team. We really wanted to win this."
Pinkerton outscored Winnacunnet 15-6 in the 2nd quarter to take a 30-20 halftime lead and the Astros led 37-28 after 3 quarters. But you have to give credit to the Warriors. They never gave up, they fighting and they outscored Pinkerton 20-4 in the 4th quarter en route to the win and a trip to the finals.
"At halftime we came in with our heads down" said Winnacunnet junior point guard Katie Valcich, who tallied 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. "But then we said that we didn't come this far to lose. We changed our press a couple times in the 2nd half, and we worked the ball inside more to our our two posts Meg (Knollmeyer) and Kaya (Cadagan)."
Knollmeyer and Cadagan (team-high 14 points and 7 rebounds) combined for 17 points in the 2nd half - Pinkerton scored just 11 in the 2nd half as a team.
"There's something I've been feeding to them all season" said Winnacunnet head coach Cassie Turcotte. "Day 1 of the season I took a picture of our 2007 Winnacunnet state championship trophy. We were state champs that year as a #6 seed. Tonight we were in the same locker room as we were in 2007. I took that picture back out to show show them that anything is possible."
"We had losses this season when we didn't play well, but the belief was still there" Coach Turcotte continued. "This team has a lot of heart."
As much as Winnacunnet relies on Knollmeyer, Cadagan and Valcich (they combined to score 36 of the team's 48 points), it was sophomore wing Emily Britton who hit the biggest shot of the game. Late in the 4th quarter the two teams were trading the lead. Molly Britton drained 2 free throws to make it 40-39, giving the Warriors their first lead since it was 8-7. On the other end Pinkerton senior Val Martin went to the rim, got fouled and hit both FTs to tie it up 41-41 with 1:37 left in regulation.
Then it happened. Emily Britton buried a HUGE 3-pointer from the left wing to break the tie and put Winnacunnet on top 44-41 with 1:15 remaining. Britton played just 12 minutes off the bench and had only taken 2 shots up until that point. But she caught the ball on the wing and didn't hesitate. She took the shot and drilled it.
"That was a game changer" said Valcich. "It changed the momentum and fired us up."
It wasn't over yet, though. Pinkerton got a steal, and pushed it ahead on the break. It looked like junior forward Sara McLeman would have an easy layup, but Knollmeyer sprinted back on defense and defended the shot perfectly - challenging the shot at the rim and defending close without fouling. Plus Knollmeyer pulled down the rebound. Valcich went to the line and connected on both free throws. The Astros continued their 2nd half offensive struggles, and the Warriors held on for the 48-41 win.
"To do it as a #9 seed is amazing" said Valcich with a smile. "Our first game of the season was rough (a blowout loss to Dover), but we stuck with it."
Winnacunnet advances to the D-I title game on Friday night at 7 when they will take on #2 seed Londonderry at SNHU. Londonderry is the defending champs, but their best player (6-foot-2 junior forward Ashley Berube) suffered a torn ACL in the Lancers' opening round win over Exeter. The Warriors last title game appearance was in 2011, when they won their fifth championship in a row. The team they beat that year for the title? Londonderry.
Back to Monday night's game. Winnacunnet struck first as Molly Britton hit Valcich on a flex cut for a layup. Martin countered with a 3-pointer from the right corner. Pinkerton pressed full court on the make, got a steal and senior forward Jamie Caron converted the layup. Winnacunnet was also pressing full court. Pinkerton broke the press for a layup, as McLeman went in for 2. The Astros were on a 7-0 run early.
It was a tough way to end her career, but Martin did all she could out there. The 5-foot-10 guard/forward dropped a game-high 18 points to go with 11 rebounds and 7 steals. Martin is a sure-fire first team all-state player, a D-I Player of the Year candidate and potential scholarship prospect.
Then Winnacunnet broke the press for a layup, as Valcich dished it to Knollmeyer for an and-1 finish. Winnacunnet re-takes the lead, 8-7. But then Pinkerton freshman guard Nicolette Arnold enters the game and in her first game playing at SNHU Arnold buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key on her first touch just seconds after coming in to put the Astros back on top 10-8.
Martin hit her second 3 of the 1st quarter, this one off the catch from the top of the key and it was 15-12 Pinkerton. Then Winnacunnet caught the Astros napping on 'D', as Valcich made a nice pass to Cadagan for an uncontest layup at the buzzer. It was 15-14 Pinkerton after 1 quarter.
Valcich had 4 points, 2 assists, 2 steals and 3 deflections in the 1st quarter.
Another scrappy guard who was battling on both ends of the floor was Astros junior Marissa Stacy. Stacy dove on the floor for a loose ball late in the 1st quarter, and then early in the 2nd she played tough on the ball defense to force Valcich into a turnover.
That set the tone for the 2nd quarter, as Pinkerton outscored Winnacunnet 15-6. Arnold pushed it hard up the floor from 3/4 court, split 2 defenders and then faked out another with an in-and-out dribble move before getting to the rim for the layup. The Astros quickly got the ball back, and this time it was Stacy going hard to the rim for a layup. Pinkerton continued to roll, getting quick transition layups from Caron and Martin and a nice blocked shot by Stacy (one of the toughest defenders in the state). Winnacunnet went cold offensively in the 2nd quarter, scoring just 6 points and it was 30-20 Pinkerton at halftime.
Martin and Knollmeyer are the best players on each team. Martin had 11 points in the 1st half, while Knollmeyer only had 2. That was pretty much the difference so far. That, and Winnacunnet turning the ball over 17 tims in the 1st 2 quarters.
"I was nervous in the beginning and so I was rushing" said Knollmeyer, a 6-footer who is a sure-fire all-state selection. "I knew I had to slow down with my shots."
Neither team could find an offensive rhythm in the 3rd quarter, with Winnacunnet outscoring Pinkerton 8-7. Knollmeyer blocked 2 shots on 1 possession early in the 3rd Then with 2:30 left in the 3rd quarter Knollmeyer finished strong inside off a feed by Valcich to cap a 6-0 run and cut the Astros' lead to 30-26.
The Warriors rested Knollmeyer, Cadagan and Valcich for the last minute of the 3rd quarter, and during that time the Pinkerton lead grew from 4 to 9 as Martin drilled her third 3-pointer of the game and it was 37-28 PA after 3.
Winnacunnet came out with much more intensity to start the 4th quarter. They went hard on the offensive boards, with Knollmeyer missing a put-back but Cadagan was there for the follow and 2 points. Then the Warriors really started to work their high-low game, with Knollmeyer making a nice pass from the high post to Cadagan in the low post for an and-1 finish to cut the Pinkerton lead to 37-33.
"We were running that play in the 1st half, but we ran it more in the 2nd half" said Knollmeyer.
"We made an emphasis on getting the ball inside" said Coach Turcotte, whose team attempted just four 3's compared to 21 shot attempts from beyond the arc by Pinkerton. "We started by trying to post up our point guard, and then once she got the ball inside the dump down passes were there."
Winnacunnet then got a steal with their press which led to a quick drive and layup by Valcich. The Warriors were on a 7-0 run to start the 4th quarter, as the Astros' lead was now 37-35 with 4:28 left in the 4th quarter. Finally Pinkerton ended their scoring drought, as Caron dished it to McLeman for a layup. But Winnacunnet answered right back, as Knollmeyer rebounded her own miss and put it back in and then Molly Britton's 2 FTs put the Warriors ahead 40-39.
With the run the Warriors have made to the title game, Coach Turcotte is certainly making a strong case for D-I Coach of the Year. It's a shame the NHBCO does the voting before the tournament starts.