MIAA girls basketball: Northampton rallies past powerhouse Walpole, secures spot in Div. 2 Final Four

The No. 7 Northampton girls basketball team poses with the Final Four trophy and banner following its 55-52 victory over No. 2 Walpole in the MIAA Division 2 quarterfinal round on Friday night at Westwood High School.

The No. 7 Northampton girls basketball team poses with the Final Four trophy and banner following its 55-52 victory over No. 2 Walpole in the MIAA Division 2 quarterfinal round on Friday night at Westwood High School. STAFF PHOTO/GARRETT COTE


Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2024 8:52 PM

Modified: 03-09-2024 2:25 AM

WESTWOOD — His team hadn’t done it all game, but Perry Messer continued to try to drill it into their heads.

Struggling to find consistently open looks against No. 2 Walpole’s 1-3-1 zone defense, Messer, the No. 7 Northampton girls basketball team’s head coach, urged his team to use the high post as a connecting pass to the weak side corner – which is the soft spot in the Timberwolves’ defense.

Down by two points with under two minutes to go, a Northampton miss bounced off the rim and into the short corner. Freshman Anna Oravec dove on the floor and pounced on top of it before it could roll out of bounds. She somehow found senior Ava Azzaro at the high post, who – in one swift motion – turned and fired a pass to the opposite corner, just as Messer had drew it up.

Standing there all alone was freshman Emme Calkins.

Calkins hoisted up a 3-pointer, and the ball found nothing but the bottom of the net to give Northampton its first lead of the game, 48-47, since it was 2-0 in the opening minute.

The Blue Devils’ defense locked down on the other end, and Walpole began to play the foul game. Northampton buried eight of 10 free throws in the final minute and 20 seconds to close out its 55-52 win over the Timberwolves in the MIAA Division 2 quarterfinals on Friday night at Westwood High School.

A big-time 3 from the freshman helped boost the Blue Devils to their first state semifinal under the new MIAA format, and first overall since 2019.

“I kept hammering on the fact that we weren’t kicking the ball weak side to Emme,” Messer said. “She was wide open in the corner all night. I told her, ‘It’s gonna come to you, and you gotta be ready to pull the trigger.’ And when it did, she was ready. She hit it. I knew we were gonna play defense after that point. Then it came down to us making free throws, which I have all the faith in the world in my girls to make.”

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Azzaro, who dished it to her rookie teammate, emphatically pumped her fist when the shot went through.

“That was the best shot I’ve ever seen, hands down,” Azzaro said. “No experience in these games, making that shot in an Elite Eight tournament game, is amazing. It’s amazing.”

Northampton entered the fourth quarter trailing by three points. An Isabelle Adams free throw and Bella Bingham bucket quickly doubled the deficit with six minutes and change remaining in the game.

Immediately after that, Azzaro took over the game. She wasn’t ready for her high school career to be over just yet.

The senior scored knocked down a sweet fadeaway jumper in the lane, cashed in two shots from the line and banked in a layup on three straight possessions. Adams made a layup in between, which kept Walpole ahead by two.

Enter Calkins, who Azzaro found by herself in the corner pocket. Azzaro then made four more free throws on four attempts to help close the game out, scoring 10 of her game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter.

“I thought, as seniors, we all needed to step up,” Azzaro said. “I just didn’t wanna be done tonight. I wanted to keep playing, and we want to win a state title. That kind of kicked me in the a** a little bit.”

The game didn’t start as smoothly as it ended for Northampton. Following one quarter of play, the Blue Devils found themselves in an 11-point hole (18-7). Walpole’s size and athleticism overwhelmed a nervous Northampton team, and point guard Bri Heafey – the second leading scorer of the bunch – couldn’t get going offensively.

In order for them to move on, Messer knew that tension had to disappear in a hurry.

“I told Bri, ‘I need two or three 3s out of you, and you ain’t making them if you don’t shoot them,’” Messer said.

Down 24-11 in the second quarter, Heafey responded, with the help of Azzaro. Heafey drilled two 3s and Azzaro added five points and all of a sudden it was 30-22. Then, after a Walpole miss with five seconds left in the half, Heafey received an outlet pass and dribbled up to the half-court stripe.

She let fly a heave that was right on target, and it banked off the glass and in, sending the visitors crowd into a frenzy. Heafey and Azzaro combined for all 14 of Northampton’s points in a 14-6 run that ended the half – making it 30-25.

The Blue Devils had life.

“We started working on those in practice,” Heafey said of the half-court shot. “If we make one, we don’t have to run sprints. So we’ve been working on those. I know the right type of motion and I just did it and it went in. It was huge; instead of being down by eight, it’s a two-possession game.”

Walpole stretched the lead to eight in the third, but a quick 7-2 spurt inspired by a Heafey 3 and sweet dish to Liv Joensen for a layup ended the period – and once again swung all momentum to Northampton heading into the fourth. Azzaro, Calkins and Co. took care of business from there.

A year ago, the Blue Devils lost to Walpole in the Round of 32 by a whopping 28 points. This time around, Northampton was ready, and took down the No. 2 in Division 2.

“It feels amazing, it’s good to get revenge,” Azzaro said. “They got us last year pretty good, but this was our turn and our year. They’re a great team, and that’s why this feels really good because of how good they are. [The two teams] fed off each other, and that’s what made such a great game.”

Heafey put up 15 points to go along with Azzaro’s 25, Calkins totaled five points, Joensen tossed in four points, Oravec scored three and senior Chloe Derby – who Messer said had one of the biggest impacts on the game defensively shutting down Walpole’s star player in Adams – also scored three points in Northampton’s win.

Northampton (20-4) awaits the winner of Saturday’s game between No. 3 Notre Dame (Hingham) and No. 6 South High Community in the Final Four. The game’s date, time and location are still to be determined.

Boys basketball

Div. 2 quarters

No. 1 Malden Catholic 60, No. 8 Holyoke 43 — The two-time defending state champions looked the part on Friday night.

Host Malden Catholic jumped out to a 12-4 lead and extended the advantage to 15 points at halftime en route to a 60-43 quarterfinal win over the Purple Knights on Friday night in Malden.

Holyoke finished its season 15-8 overall, reaching the quarterfinals for the second time in three years.

Top-seeded Malden Catholic will play No. 4 Somerset Berkley in the Div. 2 Final Four.

Holyoke trailed 22-15 after one quarter and 38-23 at halftime.