By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Not having a young woman who has been called the best university recruit in Canada in the lineup might have been all anybody had to know about the Regiopolis Notre Dame Panthers’ defeat Monday night in the high school senior girls basketball final.
Panthers coach Lesley Stevenson will have none of it.
“I hope that people aren’t saying that, because we’re not saying that at all,” said Stevenson, whose team, playing without Bridget Mulholland, bowed 30-23 to the Holy Cross Crusaders in the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association championship game.
“We were ready to play.”
Few will be convinced that Mulholland, with her scoring, leadership and defensive skill, might not have been worth the seven-point difference, but Stevenson had been preparing her girls for the eventuality of playing without her for a week, since pneumonia and recurring headaches after a collision in practice rendered doubtful whether her Queen’s University-bound star could play Monday night.
The final decision came Monday.
“She wanted so desperately to play,” Stevenson said. “She’s been visibly upset throughout the day.”
For the rest of the team, the message was simple.
“I tried to say to them that Bridget makes things look easy, and she’s extremely fancy when she does it, but two points is two points, whether it comes with a pump fake-reverse layup or it’s just a pass to put it in the net,” Stevenson said.
“Unfortunately, we had trouble catching, and we had trouble putting it in the net.”
The fact is, with or without Mulholland, the game was within the Panthers’ grasp, but they simply couldn’t cope with the Crusaders’ pressure defence, rebounding or the depth of the Holy Cross bench.
Playing in the main gym of the Queen’s Athletics and Recreation Centre, Holy Cross emerged from the first quarter with an 8-2 lead. With both teams shooting dreadfully, the Crusaders led just 14-12 at halftime but then 11 points in the third quarter sent them into the final period with a six-point lead that proved to be enough for the win.
Regi, the undefeated regular-season champion—with a 44-29 win over Holy Cross included—managed to score just four points in the fourth quarter. Still, the Panthers trailed by just four points when Jenna Whalen scored off a turnover to boost the Holy Cross lead to six points with about two minutes remaining.
Regi opted not to foul down the stretch, and the Panthers got no closer.
“In some respects, this gym is an equalizer,” Stevenson said. “The kids get nervous. Sometimes they can play their game; sometimes they’re off. At times in that game, my perception of our kids was they were scrambling to find their game.
“It was almost like we were afraid to lose.”
It was a strange game for the Panthers. They didn’t get a field goal until 2:27 of the second quarter, and they didn’t get any points from someone not named Hailey Wolfgram until 2:10 of the third quarter.
Wolfgram was on fire in the second quarter. She had all 12 of Regi’s first half points and she hit a pair of three-point baskets as the Panthers, down by as much as seven points, got to within two by the break.
In limiting the Panthers to 11 second-half points, however, Holy Cross not only won the county title—and the berth in the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations AAA tournament that goes with it—but gained for themselves a landmark victory.
Never mind how it happened. “It was so ugly,” Crusaders coach Kelly White said. “I wouldn’t say either team played really well.”
Nonetheless, for her team the victory is, indeed, a big deal. “This group of girls is young, and they’ve never beaten Regi; they’ve never won a championship.
“We’ve got some skill, but they’re like deer in the headlights when it comes to Regi. This is a big confidence booster for them, knowing they can win.”
Regi won the last five KASSAA championships, and in so doing learned the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose, White said. It’s a distinction her players may now understand.
“Regi is an experienced crew that knows how to win big games,” she said. “We just got over that hump. We have a talented group of athletes who are really good basketball players, but the hump was always tight games, big games, and they’ve finally gotten over that hump.
“We’re looking to build on that now. We have a huge corps back next year and this is going to be big for that group. They needed to win this game to believe in themselves.”
One of the reasons the Crusaders can now do so is Jenna Whalen, “the big difference maker,” in Monday’s game, White said.
“She’s a details person. As a coach, she’s that girl looking you in the eye and saying, ‘OK, I’ve got it,’ and if there’s something she didn’t get, she always stays after the timeout, after the pregame, to clarify, because she doesn’t want to be the one making a mistake.
“The theme before the game was do your job. Jenna does her job; she does what we ask her to do.”
Which is to run the floor, defend hard, cause turnovers and score points in transition.
On Monday, a night when the teams would collectively be successful on less than 25 per cent of their shots, she was one of the few who was able to score with any degree of efficiency, hitting five of eight shots from the field.
The game was a rough-and-tumble kind of affair, something Whalen said is not only typical, but a style the Crusaders felt they had to impose.
“It’s always a battle between Holy Cross and Regi,” she said. “No matter what, it’s always a good game, always a tough battle.
“Generally, when you’re being really aggressive, it kind of throws the other team off so we came in hard and I think we got under their skin a bit. We did a good job, being aggressive—take charge, get on the boards, box out and push.”
The low-scoring nature of the game presented a challenge, Whalen said. “It’s crazy. Every little thing matters—positioning on defence, spacing on offence, patience. Staying calm.
“It’s always a little frustrating when the shots aren’t falling, but you can’t get down on yourself. You’ve got to think, ‘Next time.’ You have to have confidence in yourself.”
Which is easier to do, she said, when you’re playing with the lead.
“We’re going to feel up and we’re not going to be the ones panicking,” she said. “We came out strong and knew if we control the momentum of the game, we’ll come out on top.”
The Crusaders had to play most of the first half without Sydney Gauthier, who had three fouls barely five minutes into the game and spent the rest of the first half on the bench.
“Syd Gauthier’s a huge player for us; she does everything well,” White said. “Her being on the bench the whole first half was a bit of a struggle.”
Still, with some decent shooting, the Crusaders could have put the game away by halftime.
“We definitely had the flow, but we missed a lot of shots,” White said. “Defensively, we were doing a good job. They had a lot of trouble with our press. We just weren’t capitalizing on any of their turnovers.”
Holy Cross, which last won a county title in 2005—the last of a five-year championship run—advances directly to the OFSAA triple-A championship event in Windsor, Nov. 26-28.