Northampton beats Central, reaches Division 1 girls championship
SPRINGFIELD — The Northampton girls basketball team used another strong fourth quarter performance Tuesday night to reach its first Western Massachusetts Division 1 Tournament championship since 2008.
After needing a big comeback in the quarterfinals, the Blue Devils’ terrific final eight minutes helped them pull away from Central en route to a 49-44 victory in the semifinals at American International College.
“It feels great,” junior guard Anna Walther said. “We’ve been dreaming about this ever since we were little kids. Now it is our chance to shine.”
No. 1 Northampton will play No. 7 Chicopee (15-7) for the sectional championship at the Curry Hicks Cage Saturday at 5:45 p.m.
Chicopee defeated No. 3 Holyoke 61-43 in the first game Tuesday. Northampton beat the Pacers at home during the regular season, but they were without standout junior forward Dawn Dyer-Martin in that contest.
No. 4 Central ended its season 14-8 in its first year under coach Erik Maurer.
“Erik has done a terrific job,” Blue Devils coach Perry Messer said. “His team worked extremely hard. His team is the most improved from the start of the season to the end of the season.”
The Blue Devils are in the title game after trailing No. 9 Pittsfield by 12 midway through the fourth quarter in the quarterfinals and then winning on a Maya Kerstetter jumper at the buzzer.
Faced with another tight game on Tuesday night, the Blue Devils drew on the experience and calmly pulled away in the fourth quarter.
“I think (the Pittsfield game) helped a lot,” Walther said. “We do well in the second half. That’s kind of our thing. They are a tough team.”
Northampton entered the fourth quarter with a 35-34 lead and quickly pushed the lead to five behind baskets by Susan Bell and Kerstetter.
The Blue Devils pushed their advantage to 42-36 with 4:42 left for their biggest lead of the game to that point.
The lead eventually went to seven before Taje Burston banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut the deficit to 44-40 with 3:40 left.
Northampton answered on the ensuing possession, as Walther buried a 3 from the right baseline off an inbound play.
“It felt like a big moment,” she said. “I knew we would get a shot off on that play and it was nice to see it go in.”
The Golden Eagles battled back with a 4-0 run, but the Northampton defense stopped the rally and Kerstetter made two free throws with 7.2 seconds left to ice the game.
“We were mentally tough enough to make the free throws when we had to,” Messer said. “There were a few shaky ones, but we came through at the end.”
Walther scored a team-high 13 points, while Kerstetter added nine points and 15 rebounds. Charlotte Maurer (no relation to Central’s coach) had eight points, while Anna Moore added seven to go with 14 rebounds.
“Maya and Anna (Moore) did a great job rebounding for us,” said Messer, whose team was significantly smaller than Central. “They got us a number of second chances in the fourth quarter.”
Burston led all scorers with 14 points, while Janae Bunn and Octavia McAllister added 11 each. The Golden Eagles’ length caused problems all night, swatting away shots throughout the contest.
“You can’t let it get to you,” Walther said. “They are a big team. They are tall and they are going to block shots. You have to keep shooting.”
The size differential also meant that getting position underneath was vital.
“We had to make sure we were boxing out, getting up for the rebounds,” Charlotte Maurer said. “When we grabbed (the rebound), we had to be tough and scrappy and make sure we held on to it.”
Jim Pignatiello can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GazetteHS.