BUCKLAND, Mass. -- This is what it feels like when you shock the world:
“I’m just ecstatic,” McCann Tech senior Aimee Dowling said after Friday’s 42-37 win at Mohawk Trail. “My season’s not over. This would have been my last game if we didn’t win. I’m just happy to continue playing with these girls and with this program.”
Dowling scored a game-high 20 points and made a key assist in the final minute to help the Hornets (9-11) win their fifth straight and secure a share of the Franklin West league title.
When the month started, no one outside McCann Tech’s locker room would have seen this coming.
The Hornets were 2-2 in their league and 4-11 overall, coming off a seven-game losing streak capped by a 32-point beatdown in their gym against Mount Everett.
Since then? McCann has won three games by five points or fewer and two road games in the league en route to a 6-2 league record and tie with Smith Academy, who split with the Hornets in the season.
“We had to win out in order to play on after the season,” Dowling said. “So we came into the last four games with the mindset that we need to win out if we want to keep playing. Our goal this year was to make the tournament, and if we wanted to reach that goal, we needed to work hard.
“We’ve worked really hard in practice, and it’s been translating into these games.”
The Hornets led from wire to wire on Friday night, using their full-court press to build a seven-point working margin early and their savvy to hold on when Mohawk (5-13) twice cut the lead to two in the fourth quarter.
In the first quarter, McCann’s pressure forced eight Mohawk turnovers, including a run of four straight possessions in the opening minutes.
“Our defense has come a long way,” McCann Tech coach Kathy Budaj said. “We’ve been working on it, and I tell them that defense leads to good offense. And it has.”
McCann’s first points came on a Natalie Diesz lay-up created by the press. She later scored in the post after another Mohawk turnover to make it 13-7, Hornets with about three minutes left, prompting the hosts to call their second timeout of the first quarter.
The lead was eight after a Dowling steal and lay-up early in the second quarter to make it 22-14, and Grace Towler set up Dowling for a 3-pointer later in the half to make it a nine-point spread, 27-18.
McCann Tech went to the locker room up, 27-20. But Mohawk went toe-to-toe with the Hornets in the third quarter, and it got within two points, 33-31, when Grace Poplawski hit a triple to start the fourth.
The Hornets refused to be rattled, which can’t be said of their 45-38 loss to Mohawk in North Adams back on Jan. 2.
“Composure,” Dowling said when asked the difference between that game and Friday’s. “It was early in the season. We’ve grown as a team. Late-game composure, keeping our heads about us, has gotten a lot better since the year has gone on.”
Diesz set up Dowling at the top of the key for a bucket that re-established McCann Tech’s lead at six points, 37-31. But Mohawk went on a 6-2 run capped by back-to-back baskets in the post from Emma Poplawski (11 points) with about 1:50 on the clock.
McCann’s defense closed the door from there.
On offense, Dowling drove the lane and got to the line, hitting one shot to make it 40-37 with 1:39 on the clock. Then, two possessions later, she drove the lane again but this time fed an open Emma Marino in the post.
Marino finished to provide her team with the final margin of victory and the league crown.
“It’s great for basketball,” Dowling said. “Girls basketball hasn’t had one of those in a while.”
Budaj went a step further.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “It really is. These girls have worked hard the entire year. We’ve played some tough games, and those games have built resilience. And today, they held on.
“There were a couple of times, when I was wondering if we were going to hold it. … And they did.”