It was Seniors Night Friday, Feb. 15 and the last time Katie Leinbach, Amari Bradshaw, Katlyn Noonan, Nayiri Ayanian, Olivia Lyons and Kate Zolner would suit up in their white home uniforms and step onto Belmont Wenner Field House's vinyl court as members of Belmont High School's Girls' Basketball team.
In this, their final home game of their hoop careers, the six led their team in writing a statement for the season with a steely focus and determination against a highly-touted Lexington High School team that beat-up the Marauders, 58-45, a month earlier.
Belmont was going to play their game and don't expect to beat them.
Before the largest crowd of the season – including nearly two-dozen of Bradshaw's extended family wearing "Team Amari" T-shirts made especially for the game – Belmont (11-9) went out and out-worked, out-hustled, out-shot, out-rebounded, out-everything and at the end of the 32 minutes ran Lexington (14-4) out of the gym with a convincing 63-46 victory in the most up-tempo and emotional game the Marauders had played in twenty contests this season.
"That was fantastic. This is how they can play and it all came together tonight," said a happy Head Coach Melissa Hart, who returns the Marauders to the post-season for the first time in five years.
"I've said that we can play with any team when we have all parts of our game working," said Hart as her happy team mugged for photos, a marked contrast with the no-nonsense efficiency the Marauders demonstrated throughout the game, even showing flashes of just-plain nastiness to their high-flying opponents.
"I told them that in the tournament, every night has to be Senior Night," she said.
The first half was a tight affair as Belmont came out confidently with Zolner (5 points) spinning in for the first bucket of the night on the team's first possession.
In a game where bodies hit the floor as players from both teams threw themselves for every contested basketball, Belmont's tough man defense anchored the team's play as co-captain Lyons (23 points to lead all scorers, 11 rebounds and 4 steals) blocked five of her eight official rejections in the first 16 minutes while Zolner (5 rebounds), sophomores Linda Herlihy (4 points, 6 rebounds) and Elena Bragg (5 rebounds) and Leinbach ripped down defensive boards.
In the most anticipated match up, Bradshaw – sporting day-glo socks for her final game – draped herself over Lexington's all-star freshman guard Anna Kelly for the entire night, never allowing the 9th grader to feel comfortable on or off the ball. When Bradshaw sat, junior Ashleigh Chinn (6 points from outside) pressed the freshman further, blocked a pair of Kelly's shots and stripped her twice of the ball.
The Belmont back court pair permitted Kelly a single basket in each quarter and 14 points for the game – a little more than half of her game scoring average –before the star-in-the-making fouled out midway through the fourth quarter.
On offense, the Marauders defeated the press Lexington threw at them which did a great deal of damage in the first match with a quick transition game including several football-like long passes to open "receivers" for easy layups.
But it was under the basket where Belmont excelled as Lyons – "She's an out-of-control truck," a Lexington coach pleaded to the officials – scored the final six points of the half including her final two points after being fouled after grabbed three offensive rebounds to give Belmont a 28-22 lead.
While Belmont has been dogged all season coming out weakly in the second half, Leinbach (21 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals) hit an uncontested three-point shot in the first 15 seconds as Belmont went on a 16-4 tear in the first five-and-a-half minutes of the quarter with Lyons – including a brilliant court-long dash to score the final deuce in the quarter – and Zolner scoring in close and Chinn throwing down a pair of outside jumpers.
Free throw shooting has let Belmont down so many times this season but the second half witnessed the polar opposite of the past three months as Lyons (not known for her free efficiency) went 7 for 9 and Leinbach hit each of her six opportunities from the charity stripe in the half.
Lexington kept the margin at 10 points into the fourth quarter but a Leinbach trey at the five minute mark give the Marauders a 54-39 lead and proved to be the dagger to Lexington's chances of a comeback.
And despite a scare when Lyons fell hard on the court in the final minutes – she would come back before the end of the game little worse-for-wear – the final minutes allowed Hart to bring Leinbach, Bradshaw and Zolner off the floor to the cheers from the Belmont supporters as Ayanian – who along with Noonan, who played the first quarter, were the team's role players – scored with a minute remaining in the game.
The victory will provide Belmont a slight cushion who they will meet in the Division 2 North tournament that starts after school vacation. It's now unlikely they will meet a top-rated squad who are number one or two seeds.
But for the girls, it wasn't a night to think about playoffs but to remain giddy about their season-best performance before their parents and fans.