BOSTON — What's that song, when the Saints go marching in? At Pentucket, the girls basketball team is writing its own version that has a hometown sound — when the Sachems go marching on.
A hard-fought 53-39 win over Fairhaven (22-3) earned the Sachems (22-4) a second trip to the state title game in three years. Pentucket will face the winner of either Central sectional champion Sutton (20-4) or West sectional champion Sabis (20-5) Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester at a time to be announced.
Up to a point after each of the first two quarters — 14-13, then 19-18 at the half — Pentucket was treading on thin ice coming out of the break as Fairhaven's size looked to finally be wearing out the Sachems due to their offensive rebounding and second-chance point ability. The Blue Devils scored the first four points of the half to grab their second lead of the game, and were handling Pentucket's pressure defense.
"I was surprised, we had a lot of trouble rebounding in the first half, and they had way too many second-chance opportunities," Pentucket's All-Cape Ann League senior captain Sarah Higgins said. "When I went into the second half, one of the things I wanted to focus on was getting more offensive and defensive rebounds."
Playing the role of the superhero, Higgins came to the rescue with a layup and one out of two free throws, tying the game at 22-22. Fairhaven would score the next bucket, but Higgins' energy at both ends of the court helped her team back into the lead.
"I definitely did not want to lose, especially being my senior year, I wanted this season to go as long as possible," said Higgins, who scored 16 points in the second half when it mattered most. "When I realized you're in jeopardy of losing this season, I did not want that to happen, so I went out, worked as hard as possible until I was breathing really hard, I couldn't run anymore and (coach McNamara) had to take me out."
A sensational all-around performance, Higgins finished with a game-high 20 points, 12 rebounds and four steals to go with two assists and a block. But she saved her best for the start of the fourth quarter, grabbing a tough offensive rebound, spinning around, taking hard contact and finishing an and-one three-point play that gave the Sachems some comfort space with a nine-point lead, 37-28.
"Dominant stretch, she's had stretches like that all year and she stepped up when it looked like we were rattled," lauded Pentucket coach John McNamara of Higgins' second-half play. "Even in the second half we gave up four quick points, we were flustered, and all the sudden Sarah went on that little run.
"Fantastic," said McNamara of Higgins' outrageous highlight reel and-one three-point play. "She's done that all year for us when she decides to take it to the hoop. Give our other kids credit, they found her on the run in open space where she could do her thing. It just makes a difference. Sarah carried us, but the other kids did all the little things to get Sarah the ball. Once we got that going and Sarah was going, we could press, and our press didn't get tons of turnovers, but it contained them in the second half."
But even with a nine-point lead, the Sachems still needed a brilliant defensive coaching adjustment from assistant coach Amy Beaton, some great play from the role players and a few big shots from an upstart freshman phenom Kelsi McNamara to finish off the Blue Devils.
"It was actually my assistant coach Amy Beaton that said we should double (Kara Charette when the ball went) out of bounds in our full court pressure in the second half," said McNamara of what his team did in the second half to stifle Fairhaven.
Having little difficulty breaking Pentucket's press in the first half finding their big in Charette, who could throw over the top of the Sachems, the Blue Devils looked out of sorts when the Sachems put two players on Charette each time Fairhaven had to inbound the ball.
"They were using (Charette) to break the press," explained McNamara, whose team was also aided by the fact starting Blue Devil guard Ashley Brown had to be stretchered off the court with 1:15 remaining in the first quarter after she went diving into the scorer's table for a loose ball. "She was turning and throwing the ball in, and they were transitioning on us, which teams never transition on us, so that really just caught them off guard. I think that was the key to the game because when (Charette) did get it, she was doubled and she had to give it back to a guard, and then we could go put ball pressure on them. That's why you have good assistant coaches. Amy came up with that and a few other things today that were huge."
Changing the complexion of the game, Pentucket was then able to ride the hot shooting hand of Kelsi McNamara (3 assists, 1 steal) as she nailed three 3-pointers, each one giving the Sachems a double-digit lead. She would ultimately score all 10 of her points in the fourth quarter.
"It was really big, she was the turning point for our game, and she had the spark for us that made the game flow and actually increase our lead," said Alex Moore, who found McNamara on each three and contributed seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks in another stalwart defensive effort. "Kelsi has really been stepping up this season. At first she was really timid and shy, but as the season's gone on, she's been really good, she's become more confident with the ball and she's been shooting really well lately. I don't picture her as a freshman, I think of her as one of my little sisters."
"At first I was really nervous throughout the whole day of school and then I just had to think to myself, 'It's just a regular game, no matter where it is and no matter who the fans are, and I just need to play the best I can,'" said Kelsi, who praised her teammates for giving her confidence as a young player. "After I missed two threes in the first half, my teammates kept telling me to keep shooting, so when I shot the first one it made me more confident and made me want to shoot more. Then when I shot the second one, it felt good."
Coaching some other pretty good freshmen in the past, namely Ashley Viselli, Holly Jakobsons and his other daughter Erin McNamara, who all started and led Pentucket to the TD Bank Garden their freshmen seasons in 2006-07, the coach was a pretty proud papa after the game talking about his current freshman daughter.
"Kelsi was huge. She struggled in the first half, I think the nerves of being in the Garden got to her, but in the second half those three bombs were just huge and they were within our offense and within our structure, which was really nice," McNamara said. "The kids got her the ball when she was open where she could shoot it, and they wanted her to shoot it, which is kind of nice when you see the seniors and the freshmen all cheering together on the bench."
For the Sachems there is just one last thing to check off on the to-do list, which is written on the back of their warm-up shirts and has been a motto all season — win the last game.
"We've got to be better prepared and more focused," said McNamara of Saturday's state final. "I think there was a letdown the last time from playing in the Garden and going out (to Worcester). The DCU Center isn't the Garden, we weren't focused (last time). I think this time we will.
"I was mentioning we have three sibling sisters combos (from over the years) — Tori Lane, Coley Viselli and Kelsi," said McNamara, who previously coached Emily Lane, Ashley Viselli and Erin McNamara to the state final. "They would like to stick it to their big sisters and win a state championship on them, so that could be motivation too."
The John McNamara Era
John McNamara has a career coaching record of 131-18 since taking over as Pentucket coach at the start of the 2006-2007 season. The Sachems went a combined 20-39 in the three seasons before his arrival.
2011-201222-4Advanced to D3 state final
2010-201120-5Lost to St. Mary's in D3 North semifinal
2009-201026-1Lost to Lee in D3 state final
2008-200921-3Lost to Swampscott in D3 North semifinal
2007-200821-3Lost to Archbishop Williams in D3 state semifinal
2006-200721-2Lost to Archbishop Williams in D3 state semifinal
Pentucket 53, Fairhaven 39
Division 3 state semifinal
TD Garden, Boston
Pentucket (53): Alex Moore 2-0-4, Kelsi McNamara 3-1-10, Coley Viselli 4-2-13, Leigh McNamara 1-0-2, Sarah Higgins 8-4-20, Tess Nogueira 1-2-4. Totals 13-7-53.
Fairhaven (39): Kay Mullen 3-3-9, Kara Charette 5-5-15, Ashley Brown 3-1-7, Kayli Moniz 0-1-1, Rebecca Lawson 1-0-2, Kelsey Perron-Sovik 2-1-5. Totals 14-11-39.
3-pointers: P, Viselli 3, McNamara 3.
Records: Pentucket 22-4; Fairhaven 22-3.