NEWARK – All 13 players who saw action for Sanford and Conrad in their DIAA Girls Basketball Tournament quarterfinal Saturday were in eighth, ninth or 10th grade, indicating the future is promising for both.
For Sanford, that future continues Wednesday.
The Warriors moved on with a 53-50 quarterfinal win over Conrad that came down to the last shot at the Carpenter Center.
Freshman Julie Kulesza’s off-balance 3-point try for Conrad banked off the glass as time expired, preserving a lead Sanford held since freshman Kanisa Tucker’s fast-break layup made it 43-41 with 6:19 left.
Sanford hadn’t trailed since a 10-2 run sent it into halftime up 24-20, but that doesn’t mean the Warriors had it easy. Sanford never led by more than six points the entire second half.
“Those type of games with good players come down to just executing at the end of the game the last couple possessions,” Sanford coach Marcus Thompson said. “Fortunately for us we were able to get the last few possessions, score a little bit, get to the foul line and they carried us through.”
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Sophomore Kendra Warren scored inside with 20 seconds left to make it 52-47 before Conrad eighth-grader Stefanie Kulesza answered with a three. Sophomore Olivia Tucker then made a free throw with six seconds left to give Sanford its three-point edge.
Next up for No. 4-seeded Sanford (19-3) is Wednesday’s 8 p.m. semifinal against No. 1 Ursuline (21-1), the two-time defending state champ that knocked off Sanford in last year’s state final. Ursuline, a 55-27 quarterfinal winner over Sussex Tech Saturday, beat Sanford 50-40 on Feb. 16.
No. 5 Conrad (20-2) lost to Sanford last year in the semifinals.
Sophomore point guard Lauren Park scored a game-high 13 points for Sanford and also dealt six assists.
“We didn’t really give up ever,” Park said. “We stayed with our defense. We stayed with our game plan.”
Sophomore Samantha Pollich added 12 points and 10 rebounds and Warren had 10 points. The Warriors were also glad to have Olivia Tucker, who returned in the second-round win over Cape Henlopen after missing four weeks with a foot injury.
“Defense comes first. Defense wins games,” Pollich said, repeating words she’d often heard from her coaches.
Freshman Alyssa Faville scored 11 points to lead Conrad while Jordan Rook, Ja’Nylah Whittlesey and Julie Kulesza scored 10 each. Whittlesey also had a game-high 11 rebounds.
Conrad was undermined by 17 turnovers, three more than Sanford.
“That was way, way too many,” Conrad coach John Kulesza said. “We’re a better team than that. We show our youth at times. But I thought we needed to play a cleaner game. The other thing was the shot differential. They took  more shots than us.”
Sanford’s 36-30 rebounding edge, including 15 offensive boards, was key there, though Conrad shot slightly better from the field – 41.5 percent (17-for-41) to Sanford’s 28.5 (20-for-52). Critically, Sanford was also better at the line – 12-for-16 to Conrad’s 11-for-19.
“Everybody always says you’ll be good in three to four years, or two to three years,” coach Kulesza said. “We always talk about the now. I don’t look a year down the road. We go really really hard in practice, in games, the intensity level, the expectation, and these girls have responded. Sometimes you look at them and you’re amazed at some of the things they can do.”
Thompson, who was Kulesza’s former teammate at Sanford, said the two teams are a strong reflection on First State girls basketball and, as the players mature, will raise their already high level of play.
“This says a lot about Delaware basketball, especially on the girls side,” Thompson said. “We are really making strides with our two programs, [John] Noonan’s [at Ursuline], for the future.”
Contact Kevin Tresolini at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.