Had someone sat down with legendary Londonderry High School girls’ basketball coach John Fagula before the 2013-14 season, seeking to write the perfect, fictional ending to Fagula’s 32-year hoop coaching career, they couldn’t have penned a more exciting or dramatic finish than the one that happened.
Fagula’s second-seeded Lady Lancers bested the rival Pinkerton Academy Lady Astros (the sixth seed) by a narrow, 42-38 tally in a semifinal-round tournament contest at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Thursday night, March 13. And then this past Sunday, March 16, on the same SNHU court, Fagula’s force did what few people outside of Londonderry thought it could do in defeating the top-seeded, 21-0 Bedford High Lady Bulldogs by a single point in a 57-56 decision in the Division I championship game.
In doing so, the Londonderry High bunch sent Fagula off into the sunset and star guard Aliza Simpson away to a Division I college hoop career at the University of New Hampshire with a championship.
It was the second state title ever for the Londonderry High girls’ hoop program – and the first since 1990, when coach Carol Mastacouris’s Lancers bested Fagula’s Nashua Lady Purple Panthers – and the 12th of Fagula’s long and illustrious coaching career. It was Fagula’s 624th – and final – victory as a high school hoop coach. And as the coach admitted, not too many were sweeter.
Soft-spoken Londonderry junior forward Brittany Roche stepped into a starring role in both the semifinal and championship contests – and earned herself the nickname “Clutch” – by nailing a pair of three-point buckets during crunch time to provide her Lady Lancers with the winning points in both of the huge contests.
“I just love shooting those shots,” said Roche during the post-game celebration after the title-game victory. “That’s my shot, and it happened in both games.”
Senior star Simpson, who missed eight regular season games with a hairline fracture of the right knee, wound up leading her Lady Lancers to six consecutive wins upon returning from that injury. And once the D-I title game was over, she finally felt at liberty to admit that her knee had been causing her considerable pain, especially after the semifinal win over Pinkerton. But she soldiered on and helped to push her team to the coveted crown.
“I really wanted this for coach. After all he’s done, I really wanted him to have this as he retires,” she said.
Knee pain or no knee pain, Simpson looked every bit the player who recently received New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year honors in the defeats of Pinkerton and Bedford. But the Lady Lancers got strong work from a bunch of sources in snaring the state title.
In the semifinal win over those arch-rivals from Derry, each team netted a dozen points in the first quarter, with Pinkerton refusing Londonderry any penetration to the basket. But both offenses struggled mightily in the second quarter, with a total of just 11 points being scored during those eight minutes. And Fagula’s Londonderry bunch carried a tiny, 18-17 advantage into the second half.
Simpson was held to a mere six points – and she turned the basketball over a whopping five times – during the first half of play. Pinkerton’s Brandi Bonneau led all scorers with seven points at the break.
It was a successful three-point shot out of the hand of Lady Astro Melissa Martel with just five seconds left in the third quarter that busted a 29-29 tie and sent PA into the final eight minutes of play with a 32-29 advantage.
Astro standout guard Kayla Stacy, who ended up leading all scorers in the game with a dozen points, came up huge several times in the fourth quarter for the academy side, knotting the score at 36-36 with a trey with 3:35 to go, and putting her squad back up at 38-36 with a two-point bucket on a fiery drive to the hoop with 2:15 remaining.
But a moment later LHS junior forward Roche hit her huge three-point shot – which bounced off the rim, into the air, and down through the net – to give Londonderry a 39-38 lead. And the Lady Lancers wouldn’t lose the lead during the remaining 1:35, despite the Pinkerton crew’s attempts to get even again.
Lady Lancers’ stalwart Simpson finished the game with 11 points, eight rebounds, four steals, four assists, and just one second-half turnover. Junior forward Casey Evans also netted 11 points and grabbed four boards for the victors.
Then on Sunday it was time to see what the Lady Lancers could do against an undefeated Bedford bunch that had bested the Simpson-less Londonderry crew by a 50-36 count in Bedford on Feb. 19.
“Everybody was expecting that Bedford was probably going to win this game, and they were asking if we thought we could give them a game,” said Fagula. “But I said to the kids, ‘Hey, Bedford should be worried about if they can give us a game.’”
The contest was a nip-and-tuck affair from start to finish, with the defending D-I champion Lady Bulldogs grasping small leads throughout much of the first quarter and the score sitting at 12-9 in Bedford’s favor at the end of that period.
The Lady Lancers finally snared their first lead of the evening when a three-point basket by Simpson with 3:40 remaining in the first half made it a 20-19 contest. And at the half, Londonderry led by a 26-22 tally.
Simpson sank another trey on her team’s first shot of the second half to put her side up by seven points at 29-22, but the Lady Lancers then missed their next eight shots from the floor as Bedford came busting back to regain the lead.
The score got knotted back up at 38-38 on Jackie Luckhardt’s free throws with 13.3 seconds left in the third stanza, but Bedford’s basket at the buzzer handed it a 40-38 advantage rolling into the final eight minutes of regulation play.
The Lady Lancers nailed another three-pointer on their first shot of the fourth quarter – this time freshman guard Kelsey Coffey was the shooter – and Londonderry went back up 41-40 early. The teams exchanged the lead through most of the final period, but the score was knotted up at both 49-49 and 54-54, with the latter deadlock coming when a Simpson jump shot fell through with 1:55 showing on the game clock.
Londonderry then stole the ball from the Lady Bulldogs with 1:20 to go, and Simpson called a smart time-out when she was hemmed in along the base-line in her team’s defensive zone.
The Lady Lancers subsequently chewed up nearly 1:08 of that remaining time, with the ball being shifted over to the far left wing of the Bedford defensive zone to Roche, who was standing behind the three-point stripe. The cool and calm junior smoothly lofted a shot toward the basket and it swished through, giving Londonderry a 57-54 lead with just 12.3 seconds to go.
The Lady Bulldogs called two timeouts before time ran out to discuss what they could do to salvage the game, but all they wound up getting was a lay-up as time expired, with the Londonderry defenders being ultra-careful not to commit a foul. And the locals jumped into celebration mode with the scoreboard reading 57-56 in the Lady Lancers’ favor.
Simpson finished the big night with a game-high 16 points to go with six assists and three steals, and she never left the court during any of the contest’s 32 minutes. Luckhardt contributed 10 points and seven assists, while Roche and her best friend Evans each tallied seven points. Evans also hauled down eight rebounds for the new state champs.