NEWARK – Ursuline Academy’s 2017 state championship team may not be the best in the 45-year history of the DIAA Girls Basketball Tournament, but it is certainly among the most dominant.
The Raiders’ superiority was born from a ruthless efficiency springing from its two guards, both Division I recruits, that spread across the floor, was exhibited by teammates and was on full display this week in wins over Sanford 48-16 Wednesday in the semifinals and Caravel 54-32 Friday in the finals.
It was 18-5 less than seven minutes after tipoff at the Carpenter Center Friday night and the Raiders’ lead already seemed insurmountable.
If the scoreboard didn’t hint at Ursuline’s determined intent, then the look in sophomore point guard Alisha Lewis’ eyes did.
They were riveted, often looking in one direction even though she could apparently also see in another, where her pass would go. Sometimes it appeared Lewis could also peer into the future, the way she anticipated where a teammate would be to receive the ball.
Lewis finished the night with 10 points, five steals and three assists, while backcourt mate Maggie Connolly scored 17 points and Kryshell Gordy, Ursuline’s lone senior starter, terrorized Caravel with seven blocked shots to go with her seven rebounds and six points. Yanni Hendley-McCalla had seven points and six rebounds,
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But this was a victory not easily measured by statistics. It was more impressive via the eye test, where the Raiders’ productivity and polish were a sight to behold or, for Caravel, a terrible burden.
“I think, same with the last game, too, just bringing that energy,” Lewis said afterward, identifying what she felt was the source. “We brought it to this game, after just working on it at practice. I think it’s energy and effort.”
Connolly, a junior, cited establishing tempo as being at the root of the Raiders’ success.
“Our coaches really prepared us this postseason,” said Connolly. “Our first game against Caravel was a little sloppy so they definitely stressed being efficient and taking care of the ball. When we pushed the tempo tonight I think that helped us be efficient and get the right shots and once we take those shots the rebounds were there. Against Sanford and this game I think that was the difference.”
Ursuline’s 40-36 win over Caravel on Feb. 18 had come on the Raiders’ Senior Night, when there are always bound to be sentiments and distractions. Those weren’t these Raiders, as Caravel learned.
Winning a title was their only focus Friday as the championship game appearance was Ursuline’s 24th. The title was Ursuline’s 17th overall and third straight, a streak accomplished only three other times – by Ursuline’s five-time winners (1986-90) and Ursuline’s (2004-06) and St. Mark’s (2000-02) three-time winners.
Coach John Noonan felt the way the Raiders spaced out and spread the floor early was critical in allowing his players to read situations and make decisions.
“We’ve been playing faster lately and the kids determined that’s when we’re at our best,” he said.
Their 22-point margin of victory equaled the most by a state champion since Ursuline won the 1989 title 77-31 over St. Elizabeth in Val Whiting’s final game before her All-American career at Stanford.
“That’s a team you don’t want to see yourself down against because they’re pacing,” Caravel coach Kristin Caldwell said.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Raiders celebrated at center court, tumbling to the floor with the same exuberance of a team that may have won its first title in a close game. They then scampered to their waiting classmates, who were singing to them.
Ursuline lost its second game of the year to Rufus King of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 54-49 at the She Got Game Classic in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. King is 25-0 and was ranked 18th nationally this week by USA Today. Ursuline was 23rd.
The Raiders (23-1) closed the season with 22 straight wins, including three against top-notch out-of-state foes in the Diamond State Classic in December and a 52-50 victory over Cardinal O’Hara (Pa.) in January courtesy of Lewis’ last-second 3-pointer.
Next season, they’ll go to December’s Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona, having last competed there when 2016 Olympic gold medalist Elena Delle Donne, a 2008 grad, was on the team.
The state’s other top teams – such as Caravel, Sanford and Conrad – also return talented lineups, which should make next season quite appealing. But toppling Ursuline figures to remain, as Sanford and Caravel learned late this week, an unenviable task.
Contact Kevin Tresolini at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.