ALBANY — Mount Mercy used its press to gain a double-digit lead in the second quarter and a nine-point lead at halftime of its state Federation Class B semifinal Saturday afternoon.
Staten Island Academy held off using its press in the first half, and it was for a very good reason: It was afraid it would run out of players.
Staten Island Academy and its undermanned, seven-player squad used its press to take the lead with a 16-6 third quarter, then it kept pushing – and hitting its free throws – to beat Mount Mercy, 57-53, before an estimated 400 at the Times Union Center.
A deep, hustling Mount Mercy team that had 10 players see action was always within two possessions in the fourth quarter, but the best it could do was tie the game twice as its 10-game win streak ended on the next-to-last day of New York’s high school basketball season.
“In the beginning of the year, I knew we had to get better,” said coach John Glose, who led Mount Mercy to its trip to the Federation Tournament of Champions with the school’s first New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association title since 2006. “But I knew they’d work for it, and they did, and they got better every single game. It just shows the character of these girls and the hard work they put in.”
Staten Island Academy (17-7), the representative of the Association of Independent Schools, will play for the Federation title today against Utica Notre Dame. The Jugglers (23-3), champions of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, beat New York City Public Schools Athletic League winner East Harlem, 66-37, in Saturday’s first semifinal.
When Staten Island takes the court today, it will be even more short-handed because starting forward Sade Dinkins, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out in the final minute, is headed to a soccer camp. She is also a Division I soccer prospect.
Mount Mercy had five steals and forced 13 turnovers in the first half, with an 18-7 second quarter and took a 27-18 lead at halftime.
Staten Island Academy coach Rose Bruno said that was OK with her. There were 17 players on the Knights’ roster in the game program, but only seven were truly available. Several players, including two starters (junior point guard Samantha Spadaro and senior captain Deirdre O’Hara), were part of a school trip to Italy that was scheduled prior to the team knowing it would be vying for a Federation berth. Another starter, 5-9 sophomore and leading scorer Corinn Baggs, was on the bench with her foot in a cast due to a stress fracture.
“We came out very conservative,” said Bruno, who was also concerned about her team playing with a three-man officiating crew for the first time. “I was basically restricted to sitting in a zone in the first half — I felt like I was coaching a summer league game. I told the players, ‘Get through the first half with low fouls and then I’ll coach you in the second half,’ and that’s what’s exactly what we did.
“As soon as we came out in beginning of the third quarter, we went to our full-court trapping press and we were able to change defenses and we were able to push it a little more. In the third quarter, we played our game.”
Mount Mercy did beat the press several times, but there were several times — as was the case with Staten Island in the first half -- that when the hurried pace led to failed conversions at the basket.
“They started pressing us and it was effective,” said Glose. “They turned us over and they did a great job of knocking down their foul shots.”
Mount Mercy was 14 of 27 at the foul line (51.9 percent), including 5 of 15 in the second half, while Staten Island was 32 of 43, including 22 of 29 in the second half.
Staten Island took a 34-33 lead entering the fourth quarter. Mount Mercy tied it at 40-all and 42-all, but could never get the lead again although it twice closed to within a point.
Senior Carolyn Grandits (11 points) hit one of three Mercy threes in the final minute, cutting the lead to 46-45 with 2:30 left, but the biggest basket of the game came when 5-10 junior Madison Bulger (eight points) turned a putback into a three-point play for a 52-47 Staten Island lead with :51.7 left.
Grandits it another three to make it 54-50 with :29.7 to play, and sophomore Olivia Balys (12 points) hit a three to make it 54-53, but there was only 2.3 seconds left. Mount Mercy fouled Megan McEwan (16 points) with 1.2 seconds left, but any possibility of some last-second magic for the Magic was removed when McEwan hit the first free throw, then rebounded her own miss on the second and put it in at the buzzer for the final five-point margin.
“Liv scored that three right at the end and we thought we still had it,” said Allison Balys, older sister of Olivia and one of six seniors on the team. “We’ve been in so many games, being down five points with a minute left, so we didn’t think anything of it.”
“I feel like everyone looks at Mercy as not a star basketball school, but we won the championship, we won the states, and as much as it hurts, we got this far,” said senior Jessica Alvira, who had two threes among her 10 points and was named to the all-tournament team. “We showed anything’s possible.”
“We’ve spent the last five months together, on and off the court every single day,” said Mount Mercy senior Kerry McGough, who had eight rebounds. “There are so many memories.”
“Best group of girls anyone could ask for,” Glose said. “They’re outstanding human beings. They work extremely hard and deserved everything they got this year. I’m very lucky to be their coach.”
Today at noon, Cardinal O’Hara will try to become the first Western New York girls team since 1997 to win a Federation title. They play PSAL champion Martin Luther King (23-0) in the Class A final (Time Warner Cable Sportschannel Ch. 87 and twcsportschannel.com). The Hawks advanced to the final by defeating PHSAA champion Pittsford Sutherland, 73-65, in a semifinal on Friday. The CHSAA champion Hawks (26-3) won their semifinal on Friday, 73-65, over PHSAA champion Pittsford-Sutherland.