St. Stephen – It was an all-out war, in every sense of the word.
The sectional final battle all came down to the last minute of the final quarter on St. Stephen High School hardwood between arguably the two best teams in AA varsity girls basketball this season – the St. Stephen Spartans and Woodstock Thunder – with the Harbour Station provincial final on the line.
“I thought this game would come down to a bounce here or a bounce there.” – Spartans coach Dave Taylor
The Thunder defeated James M. Hill 60-58 Friday to advance to the sectional final, while the Spartans cruised to a 76-27 victory over École L’Odyssée.
It was a game that for all intents and purposes, should have been a provincial final – but because the Thunder dropped to the Rothesay Red Hawks in the South West Regional tournament (in their first game without star senior Sandy Saunders to injury) at SSHS a week prior, the juggernaut four-time defending AA champion returned to the school for sectionals.
“I thought this game would come down to a bounce here or a bounce there,” Spartans coach Dave Taylor said of the game. “A couple balls that hang on the rim and don’t fall in, couple balls that hang on the rim and do go in, right? And that’s kind of what it was. I think if we played them six times, I think we’d go three and three.”
Trailing the Thunder 67-66 with 32 seconds remaining, the Spartans’ dreams of Harbour Station slipped away in a heartbreaking loss as Spartans and Thunder fans fought a deafening war of their own – with cheers and applause.
The Thunder was sent to the foul line three times in those dying seconds – and pulled away for a 71-66 final, sinking four of six foul shots.
Megan Haley led the Spartans with 15 points, Courtney Taylor scored 13, and Ally Caldwell added 12.
The Spartans were 25 for 40 on the free throw line, while the Thunder went 28 for 40.
As the final buzzer sounded signifying the Thunder’s ticket to Harbour Station, Spartans fans rose to their feet in a clamorous roar of support, as members of the Spartans covered their faces in an attempt to disguise sobs and hugged each other, overcome with the sting of the loss.
The first quarter, however, was a different story. By early indications, it had the makings of a possible Spartans blowout as the team struggled to make shots, and the Thunder took a 17-2 lead with three and a half minutes remaining in the quarter.
“(Woodstock) came out, they made shots early and we didn’t, and I didn’t think we could get anything to drop,” Spartans coach Dave Taylor recounted of the deficit.
“I thought we were getting good looks, we just could not get shots to drop. I knew we’d start making shots. I kept telling the girls, defend, defend, defend, don’t look at the scoreboard, we can come back in this game.”
Courtney Taylor, a three year varsity player, said despite the deficit, chatter amongst the team remained positive.
“We were all talking about keeping our heads up and my dad (coach Taylor) said to us, ‘don’t watch the scoreboard, we’ll find a way out of this’,” she said, and explained the team fought a similar deficit against École Mathieu-Martin a couple weekends ago.
“We knew we had it in us, we just had to focus on getting stops and slowing it down on offence which is exactly what we did.”
After finishing the first quarter 21-13, the Spartans hit their stride in the second, on a propelled momentum with key three-point baskets from Mallory Davis and Teagan Barry, in addition to the team’s signature tenacious defence.
“We started to drive more and do all the things that we do really well,” Courtney said of the vital swing in momentum.
“And we didn’t get all caught up in the hands on. (The Thunder) go 90 miles an hour, and we slowed it down and ended up turning the game around.”
The Spartans took a two point lead over the Thunder twice in the quarter, and outscored their opponent 16-14, but trailed 35- 28 at the half. In the third quarter, the Spartans went on to outscore the Thunder 18 to 16, but was dealt another blow as the Thunder hit a key three-point basket in the final seconds of the quarter to lead 51-47.
As the minutes disappeared in the fourth, with two of Woodstock’s players fouled out, and two others in foul trouble, Spartans attempts for a steal became desperate.
“All I could think about was Harbour Station. Not gonna lie; that’s all that was on my mind.” – Courtney Taylor
On an attempt to stop a Woodstock drive to the net with less than three minutes remaining, Davis was called for her fifth foul. As she returned to the bench in a slow pace of disbelief, Spartans fans cheered and shouted “good job Mal,” in consolation.
Shortly after, with 15 seconds remaining, and the Spartans down 68-66, Courtney racked up her fifth foul.
“All I could think about was Harbour Station,” Courtney recalled of the fourth quarter with a rueful chuckle. “Not gonna lie; that’s all that was on my mind.
“It’s intense – our crowd and their crowd. You can’t hear anything. (Coach Taylor’s) yelling down the shot clock and I know for myself I couldn’t hear anything,” she emphasized.
The Thunder will meet the Rothesay Red Hawks at Harbour Station this weekend – a team the Spartans defeated three times this season (twice in regular season league play, and in the regional final to win first seed and the right to host sectionals).
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said coach Taylor. “But you control what you can control, and we were very proud to host sectionals and we were willing to take our chances on our floor.”
Above all else, Taylor hasn’t lost sight of the “spectacular season” the team put in – one that at the start, no one expected them to have, having lost five seniors, four of whom were starters.
“I told the girls it won’t seem like it today, but they’ll look back at this as one of the great seasons that they’ve had to be part of.
“It was a spectacular season by a spectacular group of girls and I think they should be extremely proud. I know I am of them and what they did to get here. I don’t think there’s any shame in a loss to a team like that.
“It’s the good and bad of sports. You get the elation of victory, which we’ve had, and you get the struggles of trying to get your emotions in check and deal with what happened. But I’m crazy proud of the girls.”
Four students are moving on from the Spartans, with three graduating seniors; Ally Caldwell, Megan Haley, and Elizabeth Scott, and one exchange student; Johanna Von Bresinsky, who will return to Germany.