For three quarters, No. 1 Cardinal O’Hara and No. 2 Sacred Heart each tried to impose its will on the other with modest success. When one seemingly was about to take control, the other fought back with great resolve.
Then came the fourth quarter, and O’Hara broke out into its happy dance.
The Hawks’ relentless pressure defense finally exhausted a spirited effort by Sacred Heart on Wednesday night at Cardinal O’Hara as most of the estimated 400 in attendance went home happy following the Hawks’ 72-60 victory in the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association.
O’Hara (16-2, 5-0) seized control for good during the opening three minutes of the fourth quarter – using a 13-0 run to break a 47-47 knot and put itself in a situation where all it has to do is win three of its final four league contests to secure its fourth straight regular-season title and the Monsignor Martin’s Class AA bid for the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association playoffs.
This was the only regular-season league game between the rivals, although O’Hara won a nonleague matchup between the teams last month, 63-46.
“It was a very tough game the whole time,” said O’Hara senior Summer Hemphill, who scored 18 of her 24 points in the second half, grabbed 14 rebounds, made seven steals and suffered a bloody nose after taking an elbow during the second quarter. “We just had to stick to it. We knew this was the team we had to beat. If we didn’t beat them then we wouldn’t be the league champions.”
Anndea Zeigler led the winners with a game-high 27 points, while Shilah Parker (11 points) not only made the basket that gave O’Hara the lead for good early in the fourth quarter but also made six steals as the Hawks forced 17 turnovers, including several momentum-turning ones in the fourth.
“Our goal with Sacred Heart is to not overwhelm them the first two quarters but to try to break them down in the third and fourth quarters and use our speed and energy to our advantage,” O’Hara coach Nick O’Neal said.
That plan worked as in the blink of an eye the game went from having a potentially thrilling ending to a one-sided one. Parker’s trey from the left corner off a Sharks turnover 18 seconds into the final period broke the game’s final tie.
After a Zeigler free throw pushed the lead to four, Sacred Heart turnovers enabled the Hawks to fly away as those gaffes turned into a Cori Dickson trey, a Zeigler basket and a pair of Hemphill putbacks.
At times, this game seemed like a play with different subplots.
• Sacred Heart 6-foot-2 senior Sarah Young became just the seventh Sharks player since 1981 and first in 13 years to score 1,000 career points. Needing three points, the St. Bonaventure commit got the milestone out of the way quickly with her second layup of the game with 3:15 left in the first quarter. At that point, officials stopped the contest to recognize the milestone – including the presentation of a special basketball.
“It’s a great honor but I couldn’t have done it without any of my teammates,” said Young, who finished with 13 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. “Really, this is for all of us.”
• Doubt seemed to creep into O’Hara’s psyche as the Sharks (13-2, 4-1) used their size advantage to assert their physical will at times, with the Hawks missing injured 6-2 forward Kiara Johnson. Several O’Hara players missed makeable layups, including Hemphill, the University at Buffalo commit who played through a back injury.
• The moment of dread came when Sacred Heart lost 6-1 Brown commit Kathleen Ryan to a potentially serious knee injury late in the second quarter. She screamed in pain after her knee gave out while attempting to beat a defender with a crossover dribble at midcourt. In a touching moment, several O’Hara players tried to console her on the sideline at halftime.
• That blow didn’t cripple the Sharks right away, though, as they stayed in front behind the hot shooting of Ryan’s younger sister Micaela, who finished with 24 points, sinking 6 of 8 from three-point range. She had eight points in the third quarter as the Sharks tried to build on a 29-25 lead.
Just when it seemed like they would, O’Hara’s pressure got to them, at last.
“We had a few letdowns where we didn’t hold onto the ball,” Sacred Heart coach Debbie Laux said. “We ran out of steam a little bit.”