The Division I championship picture got shuffled last week, with the second-seeded Londonderry High Lady Lancers winning but suffering an injury loss in the process, and the top-ranked Bedford High crew getting knocked clean out of the tournament by the number nine Winnacunnet High cagers in an upset.
During their hammering of Exeter in round one early last week, the Lady Lancers lost junior low-post star Ashley Berube to a knee injury and had to contemplate defense of their 2013-14 D-I crown without her.
In the wake of the Exeter win, the defending Division I champions have shown mental, physical, and emotional toughness in driving their way back to the state championship game by disposing of both Nashua North and Manchester Central’s tough Little Green group.
Now, the defending champs will face the upset-minded Winnacunnet High Lady Warriors from Hampton for all the D-I marbles in the title battle this Friday, March 13, at 7:30 p.m. at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester.
Winnacunnet has disposed of number eight Manchester Memorial, top-seeded Bedford, and fifth-ranked Pinkerton so far in the tourney, and if the Lady Warriors can best the Lady Lancers in the title game they’ll become the Cinderella story of the 2014-15 girls’ hoop season.
As expected, the Lady Lancers had no trouble powering their way to a 71-36, first-round tournament trouncing of the 15th-ranked, 3-15 Exeter High Lady Blue Hawks’ squad at LHS Tuesday, March 3, despite the loss of Berube to an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
The victory was Londonderry’s fifth in a row and the 15th in its previous 16 games.
The Lancer team bested the Lady Hawks by a 63-38 count when the two squads met at LHS on Jan. 10, and there was no reason for anyone to think Exeter would give Londonderry much trouble in the first round of the tourney.
Berube’s injury occurred during the first half of the blowout, and forced her exit from the game.
The hosts led 18-8 after one quarter, 33-14 at halftime, and 53-27 going into the final period.
Senior forward Brittany Roche, who nailed two clutch shots in tourney games last March as the Lady Lancers drove to the state title, led the Londonderry charge with 16 points. Junior point-guard Jackie Luckhardt was good for nine points, nine assists, and six steals. Tara Burke contributed 13 points as well as seven rebounds.
“It was a great game for our first playoff game,” said coach Nick Theos. “The girls all got more experience, and we are looking forward to Friday night. Friday night will be a big challenge for our team. North is very athletic and talented. We will have to be at our best if we want to compete with them.”
With Berube out of the picture for the quarterfinal match-up with the Nashuans – who Londonderry barely bested by three points in the regular season – the Lady Lancers had to focus on having other players step up to get the job done. And that’s what happened in a hard-fought, 47-39 quarterfinal victory at LHS on Friday night, March 6.
“No Ashley, and the team came together and stepped up for each other,” said Theos. “Noelle Lambert was huge on defense. She took a charge and went 4-for-5 from the foul line in the fourth. Brittany and Tara were big inside, finishing nice passes from Jackie Luckhardt. Jackie logged a lot of minutes but was steady and led the team.”
The hosts trailed 9-6 after one quarter but led by a slim point, 20-19, at halftime. Londonderry then managed to outscore its guest by a 12-10 tally in quarter three to grasp a 32-29 advantage going into the last period, and the locals outscored North 15-10 in the fourth to bag the victory.
The victors received a team-high 11 points from Roche, 10 from Burke, eight points and eight assists from Luckhardt, and seven points from Lambert.
“A big win for the girls, but Central will be a bigger test,” said Theos. “They are well-coached and big inside, and they present match-up problems for us.”
The Lady Lancers had dropped a 47-44 decision to the Little Green at LHS in mid-February in suffering the second and last of their Division I defeats. But there would be no second loss to third-seeded Central in the semifinal contest at SNHU Monday night, March 9.
After pushing through a somewhat shaky first quarter and trailing by seven points (15-8) at its conclusion, Londonderry took advantage of the fact that its opponent was playing sloppy ball (13 first-half turnovers) and outscored Central by a 16-6 tally in quarter two to lead 24-21 at the half.
The Manchester entry continued to struggle with its control of the basketball during the third quarter, but Theos’ troop missed out on a glowing chance to bust the game open during those eight minutes by struggling with putting the ball in the basket.
Londonderry hit just three of the 14 shots it attempted from the floor in quarter three, and despite Central’s stumbling and bumbling the defending D-I champs still led by just three points (31-28) at the end of three periods.
Central got to within one point at 35-34 on a big three-point bucket by Caitlyn Vincent with 3:55 left in regulation time, but the Queen City side would never be that close again as Londonderry’s full-court pressure and zone-trapping exacerbated the turnover troubles for Manchester.
The Lady Lancers wound up claiming a 46-40 win that evening, with Central’s 23 turnovers looming large in the outcome. Londonderry only handed the ball over on turnovers 11 times the entire way.
Guard Luckhardt had a strong game, scoring a game-high 12 points, grabbing seven rebounds, making six steals, and dishing out three assists. The victors also got eight points from Kelsey Coffey.
“I always tell the kids that if we do what we need to do we can play with anybody in the state,” said Theos after that win. “It’s getting harder losing kids the way we have, but I still feel that we can win any game if we just do what we need to do.”
The LHS crew’s final chance of the 2014-15 season to do what it needs to do for a victory comes in the title game on Friday night, March 13. And if that’s accomplished once again, the Lady Lancers will become the two-time defending Division I champions.