A promising first half was wasted as Belmont's error proned ways caught up with them as North Andover High's Scarlet Knights connected from long-range and on their second chances to defeat the Marauders, 61-34, in the semifinals of the Division 2 North Sectionals at Burlington High School Tuesday night, March 5.
"It was sad in the locker room that the run is over," said a dejected but philosophical Head Coach Melissa Hart as she was collecting her bags in the gym that had all but cleared out after the game.
"Our kids gave it their all but I guess tournament experience showed tonight," she said. "North Andover was impressive sticking to their guns."
For the fourth game in a row, Belmont's all-star Katie Leinbach led the Marauders attack both on the score sheet and the court as the Williams College-bound senior co-captain capped her career with 20 points, 15 in a first half when North Andover had no answer to Leinbach's drives to the basket.
Leinbach averaged 22.5 points in the playoffs while directing the offense from the top of the key.
It was a first half where both teams played sloppy ball as both sides either couldn't hold-on to the ball or make open shots.
Belmont was hampered by a lingering ankle injury to co-captain and double/double threat Olivia Lyons. The senior – who scored the team's first two points on a pair of free-throws – injured early in Belmont's previous game with Latin Academy, had not practiced with her team-mates since Friday. In addition, reliable sixth-man junior Gabby Joyal did not suit up for the game.
"We didn't have any time to adjust to [Lyons] not being there with that same intensity and pace," said Hart.
Lyon's injury along with her picking up a pair of fouls in the first quarter saw her sit long stretches of the first half on the bench and never getting into the rhythm of the game, ending with 3 points.
Coming into the breach or Lyons was junior guard Ashleigh Chinn (6 points) who scored four important points in the second quarter including a steal and breakaway layup that gave Belmont its last lead, 22-21, with 1:39 remaining in the half.
Close at the half
While Belmont owned the inside in the first half, North Andover players were taking and making three pointers with the Scarlet Knight's star Morgan Lumb knocking down three treys in the half, allowing North Andover to take a 24-22 lead into the half.
The third quarter, which had haunted Belmont for the entire year, came back to bit the Marauders again as the team's first four possessions came up empty with three turnovers and one North Andover steal.
Belmont scoring touch went cold due, in part, to the Scarlet Knight's double-teaming Leinbach and clogging up the passing lanes. A Lumb three, a bucket and a free throw gave the Scarlet Knight a 30-22 lead before sophomore Elena Bragg post up and spun past Lumb who fouled the forward who completed her three point play at 6:18. But 30-25 was as close as the Marauders would get.
While senior co-captain Amari Bradshaw's defense on Lumb – who will be playing Division 1 college basketball next year at the University of Hartford – continued to frustrate the Scarlet Knight's go-to player, North Andover's senior center Michaela Mello caught fire in the paint, scoring 10 of her 14 second half points from near the basket in the critical third quarter.
"We said before the game that let the other players (other than Lumb) beat us and they did," said Hart.
While many of Belmont possessions saw the Marauders' have only a single shot, North Andover would have two-or-three chances at the bucket including three tries midway through the quarter with Mello hitting a shot under the glass. With double the shots in the quarter, North Andover outscored Belmont, 18-7, in the third to take a 42-29 lead.
"[North Andover] hit the big shots. They settled down and we didn't," said Hart who said the one thing she worried about was "[North Andover's] fighting spirit" which Hart and the Belmont players saw on Sunday when the Knight's came back from being 19-3 down against Arlington Catholic to win going away.
"We knew seeing them that they would not have a let down. And we kept up with them but we finally had that let down of our own," said Hart.
Any hope for a late run ended when Lumb hit her final three at 4:30 to up the Knights lead to 47-29 as Belmont would not score a point for six-and-a-half minutes between the third and the fourth until Chinn put in a layup at 3:52 as the Marauders could scrap together five points in the quarter.
Reviewing the season, Hart was "so proud of the girls because they worked hard all season long. All the way through they showed a level of focus that was impressive."
And next year?
While admitting she will miss this group of seniors – Bradshaw, Leinbach, Lyons, starter Kate Zolner, Katlyn Noonan and Nayiri Ayanian – for both their scoring and leadership, "but we are really excited for the future because we have kids who will continue the legacy of excellence of trying to achieve things. We have a fantastic group coming back and those kids will pick up the slack. The big question is will they prepare in the off-season because those who put in the work are the ones who produce in the season."