The host Lancers trailed for most of the night and were held scoreless during the final two-plus minutes. They were forced into a trio of waning-seconds turnovers while protecting a slim lead. And they still managed to hang on for a rewarding 38-37 win over Thomaston in the first round of the 20th Annual Notre Dame Catholic High School Appalachian Classic Basketball Tournament on Friday night.
The victory propelled the Lancers into Monday's championship game against St. Joseph, a 61-47 winner over St. John the Baptist, of West Islip, N.Y., in the other first-round game. Notre Dame and St. Joe's will tip off at approximately 7:30 p.m., after the consolation clash between Thomaston and St. John the Baptist.
Although they trailed from the beginning until the final seconds of the third quarter, the Lancers hung close in what began as a defensive battle. The Bears led 14-13 at halftime and led by as many as six points on two occasions -- once in each half. The Lancers chipped away at an 18-14 deficit and finally seized the lead when Alexandra Danas drained a 3-pointer -- despite being fouled -- to begin a rare four-point play for a 27-25 edge with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
The final eight minutes featured six lead changes. The Lancers went ahead for good on a Nakia Mabin bucket, making it 34-33, with five minutes to play. Briana Mann hit a clutch front end of a one-and-one free throw and added the second shot for a 36-33 advantage with 3:33 to play. After a Notre Dame stand on defense, Thomaston came away with a steal only to have Kayla Croswell take the ball back, leading to an in-close basket by Mann for a 38-33 lead with 2:07 to play.
The Bears, after getting to within three points, missed a chance to snip the deficit to a point when Morgan Sanson missed a pair of free throws with 17 seconds to play.
That's when things got a little too close for comfort for the Lancers. Thomaston's Casey Carangelo deflected and stole the baseline inbound pass and fed Abigail Hurlbert for an easy basket to make it 38-37 with 12 seconds to go. Thomaston's pressure on the next inbound play led to an errant pass and yet another steal. Hurlbert forced up a tough shot and missed. Mann got the rebound, yet was whistled for traveling when she tried to escape a cluster of players under the basket. That left the Bears with four seconds and one more chance.
But the Lancers played tight defense and didn't allow the visitors to pull off a final shot.
"We had difficulty inbounding the ball at the end, but we had our first significant defensive stop of the year at the end of the game," DeMarco said. "I was very stressed out at the end of the game because we did a good job of establishing a little bit of control and to Thomaston's credit ¦ they battled right back and took the momentum back."
Sanson led all scorers with 19 points. DeMarco was pleased with how junior Raina Ceryak defended Hurlbelt, limiting the senior to six points.
With the Lancers in foul trouble early, DeMarco was forced to tap his bench and test some the many underclassmen on the roster. Freshmen Precious Montgomery and Whitney Fulton along with sophomore Janiya Ebron all contributed significantly, he said.
Thomaston struggled at the free throw line, going 3-for-12. The Lancers were 6 of 10 from the foul line.
Mann led Notre Dame with 14 points. Danas hit three shots from downtown and finished with 10 points.
"She's a good 3-point shooter and we did a nice job of rotating the ball to her throughout the game," DeMarco said of Danas.
"It felt really good that I was able to help them in such a big way," said Danas, adding that the win was a big one for the team since it was Notre Dame's first of 2013-14. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence going forward," Danas said.
Andy Hutchison is a freelance reporter