NEWARK – The Ursuline basketball team is tough to beat under any circumstances.
When the Raiders hit seven of their first nine shots, it’s almost impossible.
Ursuline got off to a hot start on Friday night, then kept the intensity burning and blazed to a 54-32 victory over Caravel in the championship game of the DIAA Girls Basketball Tournament, before a crowd of 1,454 at the Bob Carpenter Center.
Ursuline is ranked 23rd nationally, and now owns three consecutive state titles and 17 overall. The Raiders have a 46-game winning streak against Delaware opponents, the last loss coming to St. Elizabeth in the 2014 DIAA final.It was the 22nd straight win for the top-seeded Raiders (23-1), the only loss coming to Rufus King High of Milwaukee, which is 25-0 and ranked 18th nationally by USA Today.
“It’s really special,” said guard Alisha Lewis, who had 10 points, five steals, five rebounds and three assists. “We’ve been through a lot through the whole season, and we pushed through.”
Third-seeded Caravel (17-7) hit its first two shots, as Grace Lange converted Sasha Marvel’s assist and Maia Bryson answered Lewis’ 3-pointer with a deeper 3 for a 5-3 lead just 1:40 into the game.
The Raiders responded with an epic surge, scoring the next 15 points. Lewis hit a runner, Maggie Connolly made two free throws, Olivia Mason scored on an inbounds play, Yanni Hendley-McCalla dropped a 3 after Mason’s offensive rebound and Connolly drove for a layup that made it 14-5.
Bucs coach Kristin Caldwell called a timeout, but there was no stopping Ursuline. Lewis is only a sophomore, Connolly just a junior. But both have caught the eye of many college recruiters, and Caldwell knew her team was in deep.
“They have two Division I guards running the show,” the Caravel coach said. “The opponents that you play all season, maybe they have one kid like that. To play against a team that has two kids like that is a real challenge.”
After the timeout, Hendley-McCalla drilled a 10-footer and Connolly hit from just inside the 3-point line. With three seconds left in the first quarter, Lange launched a 70-foot pass to Kaylee Otlowski for a buzzer-beating, crowd-pleasing layup.
But that only pulled the Bucs within 18-7. The Raiders were shooting 77.8 from the field.
“We hit shots,” Ursuline coach John Noonan said. “When you come down and you make some shots, it just makes everything easier. The kids start to believe in themselves.”
Ursuline’s closest in-state game this season had been a 40-36 home win over Caravel on Feb. 18. But the Raiders learned from that.
“We really wanted to push the tempo early,” Connolly said. “The last time we played Caravel, it was a little rough. We were a little sloppy and we played really slow. So I think the key tonight was to keep pushing the tempo.”
They kept pushing. Mason cut through the lane to take Lewis’ pass for a layup. Then Kryshell Gordy completed a left-handed drive through the lane to make it 22-7, prompting another Bucs timeout.
“We were a little tentative early,” Caldwell said. “It’s tough. That’s a team you don’t want to see yourself down against, because they’re patient. It was just a tough night.”
Connolly, who led all scorers with 17 points, dazzled the fans with a stepback 3 that made it 28-11 at halftime.
“That’s a big-time play,” Noonan said.
Caravel, playing in its third state final in five years, scored seven straight to pull within 30-18 on Marvel’s layup with 3:22 left in the third quarter. But the Bucs could get no closer, as Ursuline completed a devastating defensive run by holding Caravel to 26.3 percent shooting from the field.
The Raiders allowed just 98 points in four postseason games. They held Milford (23), Sussex Tech (27), Sanford (16) and Caravel (32) an average of 29 points below their season scoring averages.
“If you want to win, you have to play defense,” Noonan said. “I think we proved that we’re a pretty good defensive team.”
Gordy (six points, seven rebounds, seven blocks) and Mason (seven points, six rebounds) did the hard work inside as Ursuline outrebounded Caravel 30-21. The Bucs got 10 points from Marvel, eight points from Bryson and eight points and seven boards from Lange.
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ