LOWELL, Mass. – The Cathedral girls basketball team led by as many as 37 points and earned a 75-53 win over Wahconah in Sunday’s Division 4 State Championship Game.
But Wahconah coach Liz Kay knows it could have been worse.
“My kids are gritty, and they work,” Kay said after her squad suffered its first loss in 15 games. “I think it’s really hard when you’re pretty much playing a college team, honestly. They’re a really good team.
“We have to understand that that team’s not leaving D4. It’s really hard to look at who’s coming into D4 and who obviously is there and knowing that you’re just really trying to avoid that side of the bracket. And I hate to say that, but when you’ve got teams that can draw from multiple towns and recruit an entire AAU team, we don’t have that luxury.”
Cathedral junior Jasmine Day-Cox scored 19 points to lead four Panthers in double figures as the tournament’s top seed improved to 20-3.
Wahconah was led by Grace Wigington with a game-high 25 points – 14 in the fourth quarter when Wahconah fought back to put a dent in Cathedral’s lead and force Panthers coach Clinton Lassiter to bring his starters back into the game.
Going into the fourth, Cathedral held a 63-30 lead on Wahconah, a team that scored 86 points in the state semi-final.
Lassiter said his players were committed to making Wahconah work for every point on Sunday afternoon.
“I told them, ‘Listen, leave it all on the line,’ “ Lassiter said. “We want to make sure every shot they make is contested. They have to be in the best shape of their life. We’re going to bring two or three girls guarding their best players constantly rotating in and out.
“If they make the shots, while tired, you’ve just got to give it to them. But we were making sure every shot is going to be contested and try to get some fatigue in them.”
Early on, Wahconah played even with Cathedral.
After falling behind, 8-4, the Western Massachusetts Champs put on a 6-2 spurt to tie the game, 10-10, when Olivia Gamberoni (13 points) drove the lane for a bucket with about two minutes left.
But Cathedral scored seven quick points to end the first, and the Panthers really took control of the game in the second quarter, outscoring Wahconah, 28-11, to take a 45-21 lead into half-time.
Sara Thompson hit three 3-pointers in the quarter, including one early on to give Cathedral its first double-digit lead at 22-12.
It was a 12-point margin after Gamberoni knocked down a 3 for Wahconah to make it 29-17, but Cathedral answered with a 10-0 spurt that saw Hijah Allen-Paisley and Day-Cox each hit a triple.
In all, Cathedral knocked down seven 3-pointers in the quarter and 10 in the first half.
“You’ve got to pick your battles,” Kay said. “We had to say, ‘Let’s hope they miss 3s.’ I mean, they had kids touching the backboard in rebounds. I don’t have kids who can do that. So if they get in the paint, you know, we’re dead anyway. You’ve got to hope they miss and you go get it, and then you’ve got to try and get in transition.
“And that’s what we tried to do.”
For Wahconah, which had 11 first-half turnovers, a bright spot was Wigington, who scored 11 points and had two of her team’s three first-half 3s.
Wigington also tied with Gamberoni for a team-best eight rebounds. Olivia Mason finished with seven boards. Dani Barry came off the bench to score eight points in the loss.
All four of those players will return next winter for their senior seasons.
Wahconah does graduate two starters off the state finalist squad: Emma Belcher and Sophia Drury.
“[Belcher] is an emotional kid,” Kay said. “She drives me crazy. … But at the end of the day, I think she’s a kid that challenges other people, including her coaches, to be better coaches and better humans. And the only hope is we’ve done a good job of doing the same in return. She’s a tremendous, tremendous leader.
“The two of them, as seniors, have just worked so well together. And they’re not the two best players on the court, but there’s a reason why those two kids won 78 games. It’s not because they had the leading stat line. I think about them as freshmen, and those kids grew up. It’s so awesome.”
Despite the scoreboard at the Tsongas Center on Sunday, Kay was awestruck by her team’s accomplishments, including Western Mass regional titles the last two seasons
“We’ve had a magical ride for the last couple of years,” she said. “Our seniors won 78 games the last four years, and that includes the COVID year . That’s a lot of games.
“We set school records. We had a great sendoff this morning. We had little kids standing outside waving cars. We had police cars and people wondering what we’re doing out in farm country. But it’s a gritty group. It’s a long season, and they were dialed in.”