BOSTON — Sarah Higgins now has her signature game as a member of the Pentucket girls basketball team.
The senior forward put the Sachems on her back yesterday afternoon in a 53-39 victory over South champion Fairhaven (22-3) in the Division 3 North semifinal at the TD Garden.
After making her mark in the Pentucket program first as an energy player off the bench as a sophomore, then as a key contributor as a junior and finally as a defensive stopper and ball hawk as a senior, Higgins had the marquee performance of her career on the offensive end in what threatened to be the final game of her high school career.
With Pentucket (22-4) in need of a lift after battling to a one-point halftime lead (19-18), Higgins delivered with a 16-point second half, giving her a game-high 20. As per usual, Higgins did a little bit of everything, adding 11 rebounds, four steals, two assists and a block to her stat line.
Higgins made a return to the Garden after serving as a role player off the bench of the 2010 team, which eventually fell to Lee in the state championship game at the DCU Center in Worcester. Higgins will have a chance to erase the memory of that loss Saturday, when the Sachems play the winner of today's matchup between West champion Sabis and Central champion Sutton.
Pentucket's second state-championship game appearance in three seasons might not be on the horizon had it not been for Higgins, who erased Pentucket's first-half offensive woes by dominating on both ends in the third quarter. She converted two steals and a block into nine points over the eight-minute stretch. Those nine points were four more than Pentucket's tally as a team in the second quarter.
"I had a lot more confidence in the second half," Higgins said. "I knew I needed to score to get the team going. After the first couple of baskets, I realized I could score whenever I wanted."
The Sachems were able to stay in the game despite a slow start due to junior Coley Viselli's offensive production. The point guard scored 11 of the team's 19 first-half points, as she waited for another member of the team's starting five to come alive.
"I hit that first shot of the game, and I knew I had to open it up for my teammates in the second half," Viselli said. "Sarah started slow, and I told her, 'If you run, I'll find you.' At halftime, I said, 'You have to open it up for us in the second half. I did my job, now you need to do yours."
Higgins did it by applying relentless pressure on both ends of the court. She jumped passing lanes, intercepted passes and took off for the offensive end regardless of who stood between her and the basket.
"She took over," said Pentucket coach John McNamara. "She had a spurt like that in the last game against Ipswich. She's capable of getting it going. It's like she's all over the court. She gets the steal, and if she gets a half step, she's getting to the rim.
"Our girls got her the ball quickly. They see Sarah in that zone, and they get her the ball."
Perhaps the biggest compliment one could pay Higgins heading into her final high school game is that she has rarely flashed her ability to take over a game individually throughout her career. It's always been about what's best for the team.
As a sophomore, she was a fourth or fifth scoring option behind 1,000-point career scorers Erin McNamara and Ashley Viselli and other upperclassmen.
As a junior, she adjusted to becoming more of a key contributor, but her best work was done on the defensive end. Still, that team fell short of the Garden, and for a Pentucket team that has advanced to two state championship games in the last three seasons, signature games are produced at the Garden and beyond.
This season, Higgins showed spurts of being able to take over the scoring load, but again, it was rarely needed. Pentucket cruised through the Division 3 North sectional bracket with an average margin of victory of 24 points in three games.
Until yesterday afternoon, Higgins' legacy at Pentucket was simply that of a great team player on a lot of great teams. Now, her legacy is that of a great player who "took over" a state semifinal game at the Garden to put her team in a state championship game.
"Sarah's really good at stepping in and giving us exactly what we need," said freshman Kelsi McNamara, who had 10 points, all in the fourth quarter. "She brings up the level of play in everyone. We realize we need to do better so she's not the only one. Most of the time, she brings us up to her energy, and she doesn't have to score as much. But I guess she showed she can do whatever it takes."