The champ is back to defend its crown.
And not only did the Sacred Heart High School girls’ basketball team check back into the championship game, the Lions made it look extremely easy.
Sacred Heart rode the momentum of a stifling defensive effort and a strong opening 16 minutes of play to a 54-42 victory over top-seeded Ocean City in the semifinal round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament Wednesday night at St. Augustine Prep.
Few would have predicted Sacred Heart to be in position to defend its title when the season began or even when the tournament seeds were released last week.
However, the fifth-seeded Lions (19-6), who won the tournament’s inaugural title last year, will play third-seeded Holy Spirit in Saturday’s final at Stockton College. Game time is noon.
“This has been an extremely rewarding season,” Sacred Heart coach Steve DiPatri said. “A lot of people have counted us out, but here we are.”
While the St. Augustine gymnasium can be a little quirky for new shooters with the baskets anchored on the floor and a wider area, Sacred Heart looked at home in the different surroundings.
The Lions shot 52 percent from the floor in the first half, a stat that helped the team take a commanding 28-13 lead into the break.
Senior Mandy Buirch led the Lions with 17 points, including 10 points before intermission. She scored the final five points of the second quarter with a 3-point shot and a nifty spin move that led to a layup.
“It is a hard place to shoot, it’s so open,” Buirch said.
The Lions were deadly from the outside as Alyssa Ferrucci knocked down a pair of 3-point shots and Kennedy Johnson (12 points, 8 rebounds) even stepped beyond the arc and drained a long-distance shot.
While Sacred Heart’s offense was clicking, Ocean City looked lost in the opening 16 minutes, connecting on just 3-of-24 shots from the field. They finished 15-of-54 for 26 percent from the floor.
The Lions’ defensive game plan concentrated on Ocean City’s 6-foot, 2-inch center Julia Duggan. The Lions used a guard, primarily Buirch, when the center roamed in the open floor around the top of the key and provided back-side help. When the Lions went zone, Sacred Heart’s post players handled the job.
The plan was executed perfectly in the first half as Duggan was held to just four points..
“We had to stop Julia and contest the outside shots, we were able to do that,” freshman forward Kaila Smith, who had 13 rebounds in the game, including seven on the defensive end.
Sacred Heart put the game away with an 11-7 third-quarter run, a key stretch for the Lions, who have struggled at times this season after the break.
“We came out strong in the second half and that gave us a lot of confidence,” Ferrucci said. “We usually get off to a great start in the first half, but fall off a little in the second half. That didn’t happen here.”
It was smooth sailing to the CAL final.