PROVIDENCE — In the end, it wasn’t meant to be for head coach Alisha Brannon and her North Smithfield squad.
Despite North Smithfield putting forth a gutsy and determined effort in the face of long odds, the Northmen saw their season come to a close Monday night in the Division III semifinals at Rhode Island College.
Led by 29 points from senior Sandy Kun, top seed and unbeaten Juanita Sanchez held on for a 53-49 victory.
Juanita Sanchez, which went 18-0 during the regular season, advances to face Middletown in Saturday’s Division III title game at URI’s Ryan Center. The Islanders defeated Bishop Keough in Monday's other semifinal match, 48-38. Freshman Ashley Correa led the Koalas with 14 points while Carolina Guzman added 11.
The closing minutes of the North Smithfield-Juanita Sanchez featured plenty of tense moments. Keila Strick (11 points) tied the game at 46-46 after making 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with the Cavaliers quickly retaking the lead behind a floater in the lane from D’Asia Allen (18 points).
It was North Smithfield's turn as junior Jamie LaFazia spun in a shot to even things at 48-all. LaFazia collected a team-best 21 points. A turnover by the Northmen led to a score by Kun before Sidra Ethier hit a free throw to cut Juanita Sanchez’s lead down to 50-49 with 2:17 remaining.
Two missed free throws by the Cavaliers gave the Northmen the ball with the chance to take the lead. The possession ended with Juanita Sanchez turning its opponent over with 1:30 to play. The defensive stand set the stage for more heroics by Kun, whose 3-pointer from the left corner gave her team some breathing room at 53-49 with 53.2 seconds flashing on the scoreboard.
North Smithfield had two chances to pull closer but came up empty each time. Juanita Sanchez was able to dribble out the final 10.9 seconds before erupting in a mini-celebration.
“The time ran out at the wrong time,” said Brannon. “I have no complaints. The girls played hard and wore their hearts on their sleeves.”
Juanita Sanchez took both regular-season meetings from North Smithfield by a combined 42 points. In an attempt to at least slow down Kun and her teammates, Brannon opted to show the Cavaliers a new look on defense. The decision worked early as North Smithfield led 19-16 with 4:03 left in the first half before Juanita Sanchez rallied to grab a 26-21 advantage at halftime.
“I usually put a box-and-one on (Kun) but I thought I’d keep a zone tonight, knowing that they were probably expecting what they saw during the season,” Brannon said. “There’s a reason why they’re 18-0.”
Juanita Sanchez took a 42-34 lead after Kun converted a 3-point play at 8:44 of the second half. That’s when North Smithfield made things interesting, ripping off a 14-6 run that allowed the Northmen to not only get back in the game but have a chance in the end to pull off what would have been a shocking upset.
Middletown and Bishop Keough split two games during the regular season, each team winning on the other’s home floor. In Monday’s rubber match, the second-seeded Islanders jumped out a 13-4 lead as the Koalas, the third seed, missed nine of their first 12 shots.
Keough was able to close to within 24-15 at halftime and was within striking distance with 6:44 left, trailing 34-27. A couple of free throws by the Islanders, who will be looking to make it back-to-back Division III titles this weekend, made the Koalas’ comeback bid that much harder as Middletown kept its opponent at bay the rest of the way.
Bishop Keough finished the season at 13-10, achieving the most wins the program has seen in quite a number of years.