By John Shimer
---- — BEVERLY — With just about two minutes gone in the second half, Pentucket (23-1) hit gut-check time.
Opening the second half with a quick 5-0 spurt, the Ipswich Tigers (19-4) pulled ahead for just the second time in the game.
More importantly, though, up near mid-court, Pentucket’s star sophomore point guard Kelsi McNamara (15 points, six steals, three rebounds) pulled up lame and had to limp off the court with a knee injury.
Calling a timeout, coach John McNamara regrouped his team and put the ball in his best player’s hands — Coley Viselli (13 points, five assists, four rebounds, three steals). The senior captain settled her team and Pentucket was able to win going away, 46-26.
The green machine will next face Watertown (13-10) in the Division 3 North final at the Tsongas Arena Saturday at a time to be determined later.
After a terrible shooting performance by the Sachems from outside in the first half, Viselli went into attack mode by taking the ball right to the hoop, and the results paid dividends.
The Sachems made nine trips to the line in the second half and buried 16 of 18 free throws, going 13 for 13 before Alex Moore (seven points, four rebounds, two assists, one steal, one block) finally missed one with the team up 15 at the time, 41-26.
“It’s what we needed to do, (coach) said, ‘attack, they can’t stop you if you attack,’ so we decided, ‘oh, we’ll listen to you,’ and we attacked hard,” Viselli said. “We did exactly what we needed to do.”
Taking some time to get her knee wrapped up and loose, McNamara was able to come back later in the third quarter where her presence was definitely felt.
Just two possessions in with Ipswich on the comeback trail again after Caroline Soucy had just hit a three to get the Tigers within three, 27-24, Viselli was able to dribble-drive and found a wide open McNamara for a dagger three. Ipswich simply could not respond and hit only one more bucket the rest of the game.
“I think I landed on my foot and tried to turn, and my knee twisted, but I think it’s fine, it is fine,” McNamara said of her injury. “I knew I needed to go back in because this could be our last game. I wasn’t as fast as I normally am and not as good on defense, so Coley kept telling me she was always there to help me if I got beat. I knew that I could rely on the team.
“I think you always keep your confidence or you won’t play as good,” said McNamara of her confidence shooting the ball despite the bum wheel. “I knew my teammates always had my back.”
“She’s a very critical piece to our offense,” Viselli said. “Having her around on the outside is a great threat to get it inside. Drive and kick, that’s exactly what that was, and she hit that three right when she came back in, so she’s very critical to this team.”
“She did gut it out,” said Kelsi’s dad, coach John McNamara. “She’s small, but she’s tough and she’s getting tougher by the game, so yes, we’ll see how she feels later on.”
Taking a punch and come back fighting for more, it’s what the Sachems have been about year after year.
“Not really, it was like a punch in the mouth, we were ready, but we weren’t ready to get hit as hard as we did,” answered Viselli as to whether there was any worry or doubt about the outcome. “We just had to get back up and punch twice as hard, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Even with Tess Nogueira and McKenna Killian struggling with foul trouble and the team not executing on offense in the first half, then McNamara battling the injury in the second half, Pentucket still found the right formula to get the job done.
“We knew it was going to be a war and the 20-point score is probably not, it was much closer than 20 points, but gut-check time for our kids and we delivered,” Coach McNamara said. “We didn’t shoot the ball great, we had foul trouble in the first half, and we weathered the storm.
“Tess and even McKenna too, that’s a lot of lanky speed that we missed, and our kids did a great job hanging in there,” McNamara continued. “In the second half we played our game, defense and rebounding and running. We knocked down a couple of shots, but it wasn’t like we were shooting the ball great.
“Alex (Moore) does a great job defensively. Once Kelsi went down Alex stepped up and did a lot more. She’s very capable, she did a great job,” said McNamara of Moore’s blanket coverage on Ipswich’s star point guard Masey Zegarowski.
“I’m just proud of the kids. I think we handled ourselves well, and now we get to go to the Tsongas again, which is always special.”