There is no question who the best player in the Division 3 state tournament was this year — Pentucket's Sarah Higgins.
She may have had the best all-around tournament of any player in the state, even Andover's Nicole Boudreau, according to her coach, John McNamara.
Higgins was dominant at both ends, playing her best basketball when it mattered most. She averaged 17.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 2.0 assists for the tournament. She scored a career-high 24 points against Newburyport in the opening round, averaged 21 per game over the final two games, and her numbers could have been higher had Pentucket not blown out its competition by an average of 21.8 points per game for the entire tournament.
"We just won the state championship; I don't see how you couldn't put her right there with what she's done for us and carried us," McNamara said, as to whether he thought she was the best player in Division 3 this season. "She's been one of the top players around, and I'd put a couple of our other kids there just because they do so many other things. People look at the scoring, and (Sarah) does a lot of things — steals, assists, rebounds. Other girls like Tess (Nogueira) and Alex (Moore) do all the grunt work, so we have other people step up, and it's been a great group.
"She was the most dominant player consistently in that tournament," McNamara said. "Sarah had a spurt in every game, and she just finished her career playing her best basketball."
Seeing red: Masco game turning point
Ask anyone on the Pentucket team this year, and they will tell you the Masconomet win on the road Jan. 29 was a season-changer.
"I definitely remember the Masco game," Higgins said. "That was one of my favorite games because it was intense; the atmosphere was just positive. We were all running the floor working hard and especially because we seemed like the underdogs. We lost that tournament (the Masconomet Christmas Tournament), and after (the Masco win), we just went on a roll."
In fact, the Sachems would win their final 12 games, 11 of which were no closer than 14 points, en route to the state title.
"We're tough; we've built that over the season. I'm not sure we had that at the start of the season. I think we developed that in the Masco game," McNamara said. "We were in a war with Masco. Tess goes down and gets hurt in the third quarter, and we win the Masco game with two freshmen on the court the whole third quarter, two juniors and a senior, and I think that was the turning point in the season. Mentally, it clicked, 'Hey we can play with anybody.'"
The worst day is the best experience
McNamara would not try to compare his 2009-10 team that finished the season 26-1 with just the lone loss in the state title game to his state championship 23-4 version this year.
Certainly, that game helped to motivate players like Higgins and Viselli and Nogueira who were there two years ago as role players and experienced firsthand the bitter feelings of remorse that the one blemish occurred in the game that mattered most.
"I think nerves got to us, and we beat ourselves my sophomore year," Higgins said. "I definitely don't think we had the confidence back then that we have now, especially because we had won 26 games in a row. We underestimated Lee, and we just thought that we were going to come out with a win because we had never experienced a loss before. So, I think that was one of the worst days but also one of the best experiences, because it motivated us even more to get this win."
McNamara made another observation. The core group of girls off that team prepared this year's team to be state champions by the way they practiced, instilling the mentality "You practice how you play."
"They're both different. The 2010 team had a big part in this; they developed these kids in our practices," McNamara said. "Our practices are a war, and they still come back.
"It's tough for Erin (McNamara) and Ash (Viselli) to come back into this building (the DCU Center) because there's a lot of sad memories in this building," McNamara said. "We just didn't play very well, and in this press room, it was very difficult. They were very mature adults when they came into this room after losing their first game of the year. So, I don't want to compare the teams; it's just different. You face the teams that you have to play that year. They're both special teams, and I treasure both of them, the memories."
Many of those girls, like Erin McNamara, Ashley Viselli, Holly Jakobsons, Emily Lane and Kirsten Daamen, still come back and practice with the Sachems when they are home from school, and those practices are something to watch.
Toughing it out
Nogueira played from Jan. 8 on with badly bruised ribs she sustained in a win against Whittier. She hurt her ribs again in the opening state tournament game against Newburyport.
"She was hurt in the first two minutes of the Newburyport game, and she was a warrior from there on," McNamara said. "To even breathe was an issue, and it was a testament to her to be able to continue playing, because that's a painful injury. Some days, she couldn't even eat lunch.
"We thought we may have lost her for the tournament," McNamara said. "Waiting for the X-rays was a little stressful."
Before the state championship game against Sabis, McNamara issued a challenge to his team for anyone to take a charge against the Bulldogs' Shyanne Wellington, a rugged forward with the ability to take the ball hard to the hoop. Alex Moore answered the call, taking a charge in the first half.
"I took her off afterward to see if she was all right, and she was just smiling and high-fived me," McNamara said.
Kelsi McNamara average 5.0 points per game in the regular season. In the Garden and DCU Center, she scored 13 and 14 points respectively, which bodes well for the next three years.