NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — If there is one team that knows how hard it is to get to the Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst, it's the Drury girls' basketball team. The Blue Devils practically paid rent there early on in head coach John Franzoni's tenure, advancing to the Division 2 Western Mass. semifinals five years in a row between 2003-07.
Getting back to that building hasn't been easy, however, as Drury has fallen one win short of the sectional semifinals for the past four seasons. Although the Blue Devils were the No. 1 seed in this year's bracket, they had to have known a return trip to the Cage wasn't a given. Not with a talented South Hadley squad coming to Bucky Bullett Gymnasium on Friday, a 16-5 team coming into the game that had just hit 11 3-pointers in a first-round win over Easthampton on Monday.
While the No. 8 Tigers certainly gave the hosts a game full of lose-your-stomach moments, it was Drury, led by the stellar play of senior point guard Danielle Racette, which finally got over the hump with a 54-51 win at home. After trading blows all night, Racette sparked the final knockout punch, a 6-0 run over the final two and half minutes of the game that helped the Blue Devils clinch their first trip to the Cage since the 2006-07 season. Drury now advances to play the winner of Saturday's quarterfinal matchup between No. 4 Wahconah and No. 5 Belchertown.
"It feels good," Racette said after the game. "For the past four years, I was on varsity and we've made it to this game every single year and then we'd lose. This year, we were the No. 1 seed. You can't get beat on your home court before the Cage. I just think we had a lot of motivation coming into this because we lost those other games before."
It's been a team effort all season long for the Blue Devils (16-3), but Racette's contributions certainly stood out a little bit more in the closing minutes of Friday's game. South Hadley had trailed by seven points in each of the first three quarters but refused to go away all game long, keeping the game close with a frantic style of play that forced Franzoni's squad into an uncharacteristic 14 turnovers. The Tigers kept attacking the basket in the fourth quarter and eventually took the lead on two separate occasions before senior Megan Lynes (nine points, six rebounds) banked in a three from the left wing to give the visitors a 51-48 lead with 2:50 left to play.
Visions of last season's quarterfinal loss to Athol started to resurface in some of the Drury fans' heads, but Racette quickly regained the momentum of the game with a triple of her own from the right wing 35 seconds later. The shot came after an out-of-bounds play and after few dribbles up the court, Racette simply flicked her wrist toward the basket and found nothing but net.
"[Lynes] banks in a three and we're kind of like, 'Really,'" Racette said. "We called a timeout on our end and had a play set up with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. My girl was laying way off me because I think she knew I was going to try and go to the basket. You have to take your open shots, and that's not a shot I can't take.
"I took it and when it went in, I think that was the emotional changer in the game."
Racette, who finished with a game-high 17 points, six rebounds and eight assists, wasn't finished at that point, however. She then came up with a big steal on the defensive end, and found classmate Shannon Garvey for an open jumper from the top of the key more than a minute later to give the Devils the lead for good. Freshman forward Olivia Carlson (five points, four rebounds) increased Drury's lead to three points by making 1 of 2 free throws with 20 seconds left on the clock, and the Blue Devils' defense slammed the door shut on South Hadley on its final possession of the game.
The Tigers got three looks at a game-tying 3-pointer, but came up short on their first two attempts. Fittingly, it was Racette who blocked South Hadley's final shot, a heave by Kara Callahan from the left wing. The ball fell into Racette's hands with two seconds left. She slammed it to the ground and watched it soar up in the air as her and teammates finally celebrated their move to the next round.
"We couldn't put them away, and I thought in the second half we played at their pace," Franzoni said. "We got our lead back up to seven at the end of the third quarter but, to their credit, they came out and really attacked us. Like I said, I'm just so proud of our kids' character to come back at the end and win that basketball game. We could have easily said, 'We ran into a good team tonight playing good basketball,' but we just played better and toughed it out at the end.
"That block at the end by Danielle just defines her as a player. She is not just a great offensive player. She's a great player at both ends of the court. She held Callahan to four points tonight, and she was exhausted. We had to leave her in the game, but Danielle's a great player because she's just as good defensively as she is offensively, and she led us tonight on both ends of the court."
Racette wasn't the only senior to make a difference in Drury's win on Friday. Fellow captain Ali Tatro had a great night, scoring 13 points to along with a game-high eight rebounds. She was particularly strong in the first half, when it seemed like some of the players on the court were trying to work out some postseason jitters. Tatro scored the first five points of the game and nine of her 13 points in the first half, as the Blue Devils opened a 9-2 lead out of the gate.
Things looked promising for the hosts, but the Tigers started controlling the pace of the game, increasing the speed of play to take advantage of their athletic roster. The visitors responded with an 11-2 run, using big baskets from Kelly Pouliot (team-high 14 points) and Victoria Mielnikowski to take a 13-11 advantage. Drury regained its rhythm, however, and made several easy baskets later in the quarter on its way to a 27-20 lead at halftime.
Just like it did in a narrow defeat at Hoosac Valley in the first round of the tournament last year, South Hadley did a fantastic job of dictating the pace of the game on Friday. It was the Tigers' chaotic style of play that set them up for a big second half and another close loss to a higher ranked team from Berkshire County.
"I thought we did everything we wanted to do, and their best player made the best of the play of the night to block that three," South Hadley head coach Paul Dubuc said. "We made a couple of mistakes with the ball but at the pace we go, that's going to happen. I'm going to tell you that we missed six lay-ups in the first quarter. I mean, lay-ups with nobody on us, so think about that somewhere down the line.
"We really weren't worried at halftime. I love my kids. They played hard and I’m proud of them. [Drury] played great, and they have a good team, but anyone who left here wouldn't have think they were watching an eight play a one. We lost to Drury here three years ago and then had Hoosac last year. Our goal was to try and stay the heck out of the Berkshires, but we're working on it."
The third quarter ended up being a track meet for both teams, with both squads trading baskets and the Blue Devils maintaining their seven-point lead heading into the fourth. Franzoni started seeing some bad trends developing with his team, though, which would eventually catch up to Drury in the final quarter.
"They want to play a fast-pace game, and that's how they function," Franzoni said. "I was upset at the start of the third quarter because we got some baskets and we got into trading hoops with them. That's not our game. Our game is scoring and getting stops. We play the score-stop game all of the time, and it really translates into game situations. I was just upset we weren't digging in, but we weren't really doing anything wrong. They were just playing strong offensively, and that's what they do best."
The Tigers' attacking style really paid off in the fourth quarter, when the visitors slashed to the basket for three 3-point play opportunities. The Devils' defense was a step behind in transition, and Pouliot and Lynes took advantage by combining to score 14 of their team's 16 points in the fourth. South Hadley went on a 10-2 run to start the quarter, giving them a one-point lead midway through the fourth.
That's when the Drury defense and Garvey stepped up, however. Garvey seemed to be rushing some of her outside shots in the first three quarters of the game, but did a good job of setting her feet and shooting with confidence in final period. She scored eight of her 12 points in the fourth, including finishing off a key lay in off an assist from Racette to help the Devils snap the Tigers' 10-2 run. Garvey then hit two more jumpers, a shot from the elbow that tied the score at 48 points apiece and the game-winning basket from the top of the key with 1:11 left on the clock.
"When our kids got into a half-court game at the end, that's our game," Franzoni said. "We shut them down offensively, and Shannon made a great play to score and also made some great plays defensively at the end. [With the score tied at 48], we ran our motion play for her. We got a good screen for her, she set her feet, and if you let her set her feet, she's a great shooter."
"When the ball is in Shannon's hands, I just look up to run to the other end," Tatro said. "She makes way for herself, she gets herself open and she can shoot the shot and knock it down with confidence every time. If she doesn't, we follow it up and good things still happen.
After three straight years of losing in the Western Mass. quarterfinals, Friday was a breakthrough win for Tatro and her teammates. It was a bumpy ride at times, but Drury did what it needed to do to finally get over the hump and get the monkey off of its back.
"There was a point in the fourth quarter when I really knew we had to dig in and pull out something more," Tatro said. "We have a deep team, so we can do that, and that's what we did. We've been in this position three times, and we finally won this game.
"We're ready for it. We want to see what the Cage looks like, and we can't wait to continue on."