To the end, the seniors of the St. Mary's girls basketball team were bouncing off the floor, banging into the opposition, even barking back-and-forth a little with their coach. For a feisty group that has made their share of noise at the Lancaster school, it wasn't just the end of a game, but the end of their season, and the end of their careers.
A second straight trip to the state Federation tournament for St. Mary's ended in the Class B semifinals as a hot-shooting, weapon-filled Long Island Lutheran team beat the Lancers, 67-45, Friday afternoon at the Times Union Center.
A small friends-and-family crowd of about 200 watched Long Island Lutheran, representatives of the Alliance of Independent Schools, start the game with an 11-0 run in a 22-10 first quarter. The Crusaders held a double-digit lead the rest of the way. The Lancers rallied repeatedly to keep the deficit less than 20, but never got it in single digits.
"I just told them, 'There's no reason for us to be upset or hang our heads in any way, " St. Mary's fifth-year coach Keith Junik said of his postgame talk with his players. "[Lutheran] just played championship basketball, they really did.
"It's been incredible -- five years ago, we were nothing. It's [the senior class] that has kind of turned it around and turned us into what we are."
Senior Raeann Stilwell had 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting with five steals to lead St. Mary's (18-10) and was named to the all-tournament team. This was also the last game for seniors Victoria Fontana (nine points, two threes), Maria Rosati (six rebounds, five assists, three steals), Nicole Gangloff (eight points) and Rachael Salamone.
Stilwell, Fontana and Rosati have all played since their freshman year, with Stilwell and Fontana starting every game (110 total); Rosati was injured for half of last season.
Two consecutive state Catholic Class B titles earned the Lancers their first trips to the Federation, which determines the state's overall champions from among the winners of the CHSAA (Catholic), AIS (independent), PHSAA (public) and PSAL (New York City's Public Schools Athletic League).
"I think we helped put St. Mary's on the map," Fontana said. "It's not like we had one good year, we did the last three years. We can see the effect -- girls actually want to come play for our school, and that's something."
Fontana and Stilwell both drew several fouls by speeding coast-to-coast and hurtling themselves toward the basket. Stilwell was playing physical defense even though the game was out of reach, fouling out with just over a minute to go. Rosati was in the middle of several scrambles while some shooting frustrations led to her and Junik having an animated discussion on the court, then on the bench after Rosati was subbed for -- but just briefly.
"We just didn't want her to stop shooting -- she just gave me a look, 'I will not stop playing, get me back in this game,' " said Junik. "We get to the last two minutes and we're down 20 points and those kids will not quit.
"That's the mentality that is there now, and they don't know it, but they're passing it down to our sophomores who are sitting there watching on the bench, and that's what builds championship programs. That's what got us here two years in a row."
Ciara Rosten, a 6-3 freshman, had four points and five rebounds but made a tremendous impact on defense with five blocks, all in the first half. KC Sokolski, a 5-11 junior, had five rebounds and two steals.
Despite's Rosten's excellent defense early on, Lutheran surged thanks to a barrage of three-pointers. The Crusaders (19-5) hit 7 of 14 in the first half (they were 8 for 17 for the game), including five from junior guard Christina Raiti (23 points).
Lutheran's lead hit 19 in the second quarter but St. Mary's trimmed it to 35-24 at halftime. With both teams running at nearly every opportunity, the Crusaders increased their lead for almost all of the third but St. Mary's got it back to 11 at 46-35 heading to the fourth. St. Mary's was within 12 (51-39) with less than five minutes to play before the Crusaders closed the game with a 16-6 run.
For a play-by-play account of the action, review a live blog at the Prep Talk blog at buffalonews.com.