MIDDLE VILLAGE, N.Y. — St. Francis (Alpharetta, Ga.) would love nothing more than to wake up Saturday morning and be playing in the DICK’S Sporting Goods High School Nationals championship game.
At the very least, the Lady Knights wish the fourth quarter of Friday’s 57-50 semifinal loss to Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) was nothing more than a cruel April Fool’s joke.
The Lady Knights (31-2) squandered a nine-point lead in the final 7:04, which turned into a 16-point swing in favor of Riverdale Baptist. Lady Knights head coach Aisha Kennedy said she started to feel the game slip away in the last two minutes, when Riverdale Baptist turned the ball over on two straight possessions.
“I feel like we’re the better team,” Kennedy said. “I just hate that we let it slip away from us, and I truly feel like we’re the better team and we should be playing (Saturday). We let some minor mistakes cost us the game.”
Riverdale Baptist (37-3), ranked No. 5 in the USA TODAY Sports Super 25, will play for its third DICK’S Nationals title in five years Saturday at Madison Square Garden at 10 a.m. ET against either Seton Catholic High School (Chandler, Ariz.) or Ribault High School (Jacksonville, Fla.).In a game that could’ve gone to either team, both felt they should’ve come out on top.
“We know we’re the best, so we’ve got to carry ourselves like we’re the best,” said Lady Crusaders junior Mangela Ngandjui, who finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. “We practice like we’re the best, we play like the best, and as far as that, you just got to walk like you’re the best.”
Known for its high-pressure defense, Riverdale Baptist was smothering Friday, forcing 28 turnovers and scoring 24 points off them. The Lady Crusaders led for less than five and a half minutes, the majority of which came in the fourth quarter.
“The fourth quarter is where you give it your all,” Ngandjui said. “We practice everyday for the fourth quarter.”
Maryland-bound McDonald’s All American Kaila Charles struggled mightily for the Lady Crusaders through the first three quarters, shooting just 4 of 18 from the field, but turned it on down the stretch by sinking three of her five shots in the fourth quarter.
“My teammates kept encouraging me and they kept trusting me with the ball, so I just realized I really have to convert on the offensive end if I’m going to have the ball in my hand and my teammates are trusting me,” said Charles.
Riverdale Baptist head coach Sam Caldwell said it’s important for his team to play and exude confidence, but not cockiness, on or off the court.
“One of the things we always talk about is that arrogant people, and sometimes bravado and ignorance, it always speaks very, very loudly,” he said. “Confidence always speaks for itself.”
St. Francis junior Maya Dodson, ranked No. 11 in the ESPNw 60 for her class, headlines a Lady Knights team that will not graduate any of its starting five. Dodson, originally from New York, said she had her sights set on Broadway before heading back to Georgia.
“I’ve seen two plays here when I was younger, so hopefully I can see another play,” she said, noting that she saw “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” previously, but doesn’t have a preference for one this time around. “Any play, I don’t really care.”
The loss did not take away from the experience for Dodson’s teammates, who walked around Times Square on Thursday. “It was just so surreal in that moment,” junior guard Nichel Tampa said.
But the allure of New York City did not erase the fact that St. Francis felt it should be playing Saturday morning.
“We were supposed to be in that championship,” Tampa said.