WOONSOCKET â€“ Two years ago, Mount St. Charles Academy was the top seed from Division II-North. Instead of advancing far into the playoffs, however, the Mounties saw their season come to an abrupt close with a shocking two-point loss to Scituate in the preliminary round.
Before her top-ranked team took to the floor in Thursdayâ€™s opening-round contest with Warwick Veterans, a No. 8 seed from Div. II-South with the worst record in the entire league, head coach Nina Morey thought about that upset to the Spartans.
And less than two hours after the opening tip-off, that nightmare nearly repeated itself.
The Hurricanes, who lost their final six games of the league season to finish at 4-14, played liked it was among the elite and an expected blowout never materialized before the hometown crowd as the Mounties survived a nail-biting 52-45 win over the pesky Hurricanes.
The key shot for Mount came with just 1:32 remaining in the game when freshman Noreen Mulledy broke a 45-45 tie by launching a clutch three-pointer from the left side of the arc. The Mounties scored their remaining points from the free-throw line and now have earned a date to the quarterfinals on Sunday night at 7 where theyâ€™ll be matched with Mount Hope at Rhode Island College.
â€śThat was definitely a clutch shot right there,â€ť Morey said. â€śIt was 45-45 and that put us up by three. It was a freshman that took that shot. That was critical.â€ť
Senior Adriana Maurano scored a team-best 17 points and senior teammate Maria Saia finished with a double-double, netting 12 points and grabbing 16 for Mount. On the other side, the Mounties had to contend with some superlative efforts from the Hurricanesâ€™ senior tandem of Jessica Arnold and Brittany Alejo. Arnold poured in a game-high 23 points, while Alejo had 18 points along with nine rebounds.
Warwick coach Owen Paquet admitted he was surprised at the close tilt, but was more than pleased with the heart his Lady Hurricanes showed throughout the night.
â€śLooking at Mount St. Charles record I really thought we were going to be in some trouble, but when the playoffs start itâ€™s a whole new season,â€ť Paquet said. â€śI told my girls we got to go in there and give it our best effort. When thereâ€™s a whole new season like this, anything can happenâ€¦(Mulledy) hit a big shot in the corner for them to really ice the game.â€ť
Maurano got the Mounties off to a strong start in the opening half. She scored Mountâ€™s first eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, to fuel an opening 14-4 run with just three minutes passed on the clock. Led by a strong opening half from Alejo, who had 11 points and nine rebounds by the break, the Hurricanes never let the Mounties take over in their typical streaky fashion.
Coupled by its defense and an often cold-shooting Mountie squad, Warwick stayed within striking distance of their rival throughout the first half. Arnold hit one of a trio of three-pointers for the night with 11:12 left to get the Hurricanes within five at 17-12.
A pair of buckets from Saia and another shot from underneath from senior Nicole Grinsell would increase the Mounties advantage to 23-14. Alejo chopped the deficit down to four at the midway point by converting on a three-point play and then scoring on a putback.
Mount would eventually go into the locker room holding a 30-21 lead, but it didnâ€™t come easy.
â€śI knew it would be a tough game,â€ť Morey said. â€śWe hadnâ€™t played them and I knew they had some really good players, especially (Jessica Arnold). I know she can carry their team, and the other one, (Brittany Alejo). I knew they had them. I didnâ€™t go into the game overconfident.â€ť
How about her team?
â€śI donâ€™t know?â€ť she said. â€śI have been telling them all the time not to. I reminded them of our first-round upset two years ago. We were the No. 1 seed and we played the last seed. I have been telling them that and maybe they did anyway. You never know.â€ť
After a pair of free throws from Saia, the Mounties managed to increase their cushion to a dozen points (40-28) with 9:10 remaining. That only seemed to light a spark for the Hurricanes, particularly Arnold. With Alejo sitting on the bench due to foul trouble, the 5-foot-4 senior scored 11 unanswered points with back-to-back three-pointers, a three-point play and a short jumper to get the Canesâ€™ within a point (40-39) with 6:54 left.
Just under two minutes later, Warwick tied the game at 43 with a pair of free throws from Alejo, who seconds earlier was sent back onto the court.
Tied again at 45, Mulledy came up with a big block on a potential go-ahead layup by Arnold and then nailed the eventual clincher with her three-pointer.
â€śI thought we did a good job with their bigs,â€ť Paquet said. â€śI am not the biggest and strongest team, but my team just showed heart and desire today to really fight bigger girls down low and not give up position. The desire and production from grabbing the basketball was unbelievable.â€ť
Mount will now have a few days off before facing Mount Hope, a 56-42 winner over Moses Brown on Wednesday. The Huskies are a No. 4 seed from II-South with an 11-7 record.
â€śWe played them in an Injury Fund game the very first game of the year in early December,â€ť said Morey, whose team sports a 17-1 mark. â€śTo me, that doesnâ€™t mean anything because we have both had a full season and are different teams now. Weâ€™ll have to play better than today (to win).â€ť