'Bolts edged by Panthers in Elite 8

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Cranston East knows a little something about being the Cinderella team after its run to the Final Four last year out of Division II.

This year, Cinderella got in the way of a return to The Ryan Center. Johnston sophomore Gabriella DiRaimo blocked McKenzie Richards’ potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Division II Panthers escaped with a 53-51 win.

It capped a sensational night for DiRaimo, who finished with 22 points, six boards, five steals and that one block. Her fellow guard, Jordan Moretti, wasn’t far behind with 19 and 10 with three thefts.

“Gabby’s always been the perfect complement, we know that,” Johnston head coach Chris Corsinetti said. “It’s a Durant-Westbrook type thing. She’s the perfect complement to [Jordan].”

Johnston was able to come out victorious despite just logging three scorers: Moretti, DiRaimo and freshman forward Caroline Howe, who chipped in 12 points and six boards.

Despite not getting her name on the scoresheet, sophomore stretch guard Bianca Robbins had the most difficult task of the night: guarding East’s Sarah Coutu. Coutu led the ’Bolts with 15 points, but Robbins prevented her from taking over the game.

“She wore Sarah down,” Corsinetti said of Robbins’ defense. “Sarah got a little frustrated. Bianca doesn’t score points, but she keeps points off the board. What she does for us is invaluable.”

The Panthers carried a 30-23 lead into halftime on the backs of their guards. Moretti drilled a 3-pointer to increase the advantage to 25-17 and DiRaimo got a shot to fall that made it double digits.

East would slash that deficit down to six behind a 3 from Richards, but DiRaimo answered with one of her own to keep the ’Bolts at bay.

Not for long, though. East came surging out of the break, ripping off a 20-9 run to go up 43-39 with nine minutes to go. Junior Maia Caito, who soared over Johnston bigs Howe and Amelia Moore, had a dominant game. She finished with 12 and 14, with most scoring work in the second half.

Richards helped her side chip away at the deficit, too, picking up a steal-and-score to register her 1,000th career point.

“She thrives on competition,” East head coach Lloyd Bochner said. “Just in practice, her intensity ratcheted up. She didn't want it to end.”

Coutu found some open space, and when she couldn’t, Caito was able to create her opportunities inside. She got a layup to roll in with just more than 12 minutes left to tie the game at 37. Later, a 3-pointer from freshman Hope Halvarson matched East’s largest lead of the night, 43-39.

That advantage wouldn’t last for long, as Howe put in work at the post. She got two shots to fall that tied the game once more at 43 and kicked off a 10-0 Johnston run. Moretti sank four free throws in a row, followed by a DiRaimo field goal to push the lead out to 49-43.

Caito responded with a drive and Coutu with a pair at the charity stripe to cut it down to 49-47 with 4:10 to go, but East’s comeback bid took a blow soon after. Coutu was whistled for her fifth foul with 3:30 to go, forcing one of East’s most dynamic scorers and leaders to sit the bench for the remainder of the contest.

“They play beautiful basketball and they don’t stop,” Bochner said of Johnston. “That’s what happens in the playoffs: Big-time players make big-time plays. In the end, [Johnston] didn’t fold.”

East managed to tie the score at 51 off a Richards 3-pointer with 2:11 to go, but DiRaimo answered almost immediately with a shot that put the Panthers ahead by two.

Both sides traded scoreless possessions before East had its first chance for the final shot. Richards slipped during the inbounds pass, which resulted in Moretti coming away with the ball. She was fouled and went to the line for a 1-and-1 with 10.6 seconds to go.

She missed the front end, and East collected the board. Richards made her way to the left corner and sent a shot up to win it, but DiRaimo got her hand on the shot and it floated down to Moretti as time expired.

“I knew she was going to shoot it at the 3-point line, so Bianca was on that side and I was on the front,” DiRaimo said. “I tried not to foul her and I just wanted to get the ball.”

Now the Panthers are on to the Final Four at The Ryan Center, where they will face off with another D-I team, La Salle. Despite falling to Barrington in the D-I final, La Salle is still the reigning state champion and has won seven of the last 10.

Johnston, though, has not lost since Dec. 27.

“They are the standard which we are all measured by,” Corsinetti said of La Salle. “That’s why I have a lot of respect for what Barrington is able to do. I’m just happy to be here. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

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