With just over four minutes left in Tuesday’s girls’ basketball game, Michaela Lawler buried a three-pointer to cap a 9-1 run and put her South Kingstown team back in front. It looked like Pilgrim, which hadn’t won a Division I game since moving up to the league last year, might have to watch another upset bid fall by the wayside.
But on the bench, the message was to stay positive.
“We’ve been in a lot of games, at the half and even into the second half, but teams always just run away from us,” said Pilgrim head coach Ian Smith. “We’ve been talking a lot in the second half of the season about stopping that run. We had some really good timeouts tonight where we said, ‘Okay, no matter what happens in the next two minutes, just stay positive. Worry about the next play.’ Because in the last two minutes, crazy things can happen.”
And a crazy thing did happen.
The Pats stayed close over the next three minutes and even got the lead back before Kristina Dufficy hit a three with 29 seconds left to put the Rebels up one. But at the tail end of a wild last few seconds, Pilgrim’s Danielle LeBlanc was fouled while shooting a desperation three with 0.7 seconds left. She calmly hit all three free throws, and the Rebels had no time to get a shot off as the Pats won 48-46.
It was the first Division I victory in 35 tries for the Pats, who went 0-18 last season and were 0-16 coming into Tuesday’s game.
“It was a total team effort,” Smith said. “Everybody contributed. We’ve talked an awful lot about how we need to step when the game starts feeling like it’s getting away from us. We certainly did tonight.”
The Pats hinted that something might be different when they went on an 8-1 run to end the first half. They then started the second half on a 7-0 run, which gave them a six-point lead.
The Rebels, who had beaten Pilgrim by 25 earlier in the season, chipped away quickly. The Pats held strong, but watched Lawler give the Rebels a 41-38 lead on her three-pointer with 4:35 left.
It felt like a dagger, especially with Pilgrim center Betsy Heidel fouling out a minute before.
But the Pats were undeterred.
Stefani Quaine hit a jumper in the lane 16 seconds later to make it a one-point game. After the Rebels went back up by three on two Mary Eden free throws, LeBlanc made two free throws to make it a one-point game again. Quaine then hit another short jumper with 2:42 left to put the Pats in front 44-43.
The teams traded empty possessions from there until the Rebels committed a reach-in foul on LeBlanc with 55 seconds left. She hit one of two free throws to make it 45-43.
At the other end, Lawler misfired on a three. LeBlanc got the rebound and took off but then threw the ball away. Soon after, Dufficy hit a three from the right wing to put the Rebels up by one with 29 seconds left.
And those last 29 seconds were crazy.
Pilgrim nearly turned the ball over again on its next possession, but instead, Stephanie Sylva picked up a loose ball and got fouled with 14 seconds left. She missed both free throws, though, and the Rebels stayed in front by a point.
Forced to foul, Pilgrim sent Mary Matthews to the line with nine seconds left and got new life when she also missed both free throws. Megan St. Jacques got the rebound for Pilgrim but when she tried to push the ball ahead, a long pass was deflected out of bounds.
Pilgrim would inbound, but with only 1.9 seconds on the clock.
Thankfully for the Pats, that was just enough time.
LeBlanc took a pass by the left hash mark and took a dribble. With South’s Maggie Buell flying at her, LeBlanc fired up a shot, drew some contact and got the foul call.
“I knew she was going to foul me because she was out of control,” LeBlanc said. “I thought I would just toss it up – nothing to lose.”
At the free-throw line, LeBlanc was determined. She had committed the turnover that led to South’s go-ahead three, and she wasn’t about to waste the chance for redemption – or the chance for a long-awaited win.
“I couldn’t leave this gym knowing I turned it over and lost this game,” LeBlanc said.
With South’s student section looming behind the basket, LeBlanc hit the first free throw to tie the game, buried the second to give Pilgrim the lead and then hit the third to put the Pats up two.
“The ball in Danielle’s hands is how we draw it up,” Smith said. “She was fouled and she came through. That’s probably the most pressure she’s been under in her high school career, the weight of not having any D-I wins, and the opportunity not only to tie it, but to take the lead. She came through on all three.”
After the free throws, South’s inbounds pass was knocked away, and the Pats could finally celebrate.
“First win in two years,” LeBlanc said. “It feels great.”
LeBlanc had 24 points to lead all scorers. Guilia Garcia added 11 for the Pats, while Quaine had seven big points, all in the second half.
“Her confidence has been growing offensively the last week or two,” Smith said of Quaine. “She works hard every single practice. She never takes a minute off. It came through tonight for sure. She did a great job.”
Smith also highlighted the efforts of Heidel. She only scored three points but she helped Pilgrim hold its own in the rebounding battle, something that hadn’t happened in the earlier loss to the Rebels.
“Danielle leads us offensively, but Betsy dictates a lot of what we do overall,” Smith said. “Her focus and intensity kind of drives us.”
The Pats have one more league game left, a home game on Friday at 7 p.m. against Westerly. On Saturday at 7 p.m., the Pats will host a non-league game against Juanita Sanchez for senior night.