LOWELL, Mass. – There were less than three seconds remaining in Saturday night’s Div. 2 state title game at the Tsongas Center when Oliver Ames senior guard Caroline Peper stepped to the line. Despite not having scored to that point in the game and with raucous crowds on both sides of the gym making a deafening noise, OA’s leading scorer, who reached the 1,000-point mark for her career in the playoff opener, had the chance to seal a championship.
Peper (eight rebounds), a 97-percent foul shooter this season, barely hesitated, knocking down both free throws to knock out top seed Norwood. Oliver Ames (22-3) led practically from start to finish, walking away with a 53-48 victory, handing the top seed its first loss of the season, and claiming the program’s third state title.
“This to me is the most magnificent moment these kids will ever have and it’s all because of each other,” said OA coach Laney Clement-Holbrook, who earned career win No. 733 on Saturday. “It’s been like a family for the entire year and it couldn’t have ended any better for that family. I’m incredibly proud of them.”
When asked what was going through her mind with a chance to clinch a title, Peper explained, “I knew they were going to go in and that was going to be it. A little different knowing there wasn’t a game after. I don’t know, I never expected it [to end] this way. I’m sure it will hit me tomorrow but I’m so glad that I did it with this team. I absolutely love them, they’re my favorite people, and they deserve it 100 percent.”
The focal point entering the game was Norwood’s star forward Megan Olbrys. The Villanova-commit had the type of size and all-around game that could cause OA problems on both ends of the floor. Rather than Norwood’s experience, it was OA’s youth that took control of the game early on.
Sophomore Jasmyn Cooper (game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds) was matched up with Olbrys on the offensive end, so the Tigers made her the primary ball-handler. Cooper got an early bucket on a nice pass by classmate Kaydance Derba, drove past Olbrys for a layup, got out on the break after a Peper steal and look-ahead, and took a feed from fellow sophomore Sarah Hilliard (15 points, two blocks, three steals, and three assists) for another finish at the rim.
Clement-Holbrook said, “We set up our offense based on the fact that we were going to keep Olbrys away from the basket and Jasmyn can play the point, she can play the post, she can play the wing. She’s so calm and she’s so collected for a sophomore, it’s just amazing to me.”
With Cooper scoring eight points and Hilliard adding five, OA jumped out to a 13-8 lead. On the defensive end, Hailey Bourne picked up two quick fouls guarding Olbrys (team-high 21 points) in the paint, so Anna Murphy (12 points) came off the bench to take on that challenge. They held Norwood’s star to just three free throws in the first. Murphy also got a basket to make it 15-10 after one.
Hilliard got the second quarter started with a long three. The eight-point lead would be the largest of the night for the Tigers. Norwood crept back into the game. Erin Reen (14 points) drilled a three and Olbrys finally got free in the paint for a basket.
A second three from Reen cut the lead to just one, 22-21, but Murphy battled for an offensive rebound and scored to push the lead back to three at the break. It was a scrappy quarter for the Tigers, but energy off the bench from Murphy, Maddie Homer, and Sophia Krinsky helped keep OA in front.
The third quarter turned into a duel between Olbrys and Cooper. The Norwood senior knocked down a pair from beyond the arc and then a free throw from Tricia Wlodkowski tied the game at 28-28. Cooper answered back. She spun through the lane and finished, drove past Olbrys for a layup, and then got out in transition to finish off a two-on-one following a Hilliard steal.
Cooper scored 12 of OA’s 14 points in the third and had the Tigers up 38-35 heading to the fourth. She said, “It’s amazing having this amazing team, amazing coaching staff, to celebrate this moment with me. I feel like the crowd, the environment of the gym just kept me going and kept me pushing to the end.”
After shooting only two free throws in the first half, OA also got to the line eight times in the third, making them all, and would finish the game shooting 18-of-20 from the charity stripe.
OA looked like it was going to break the game open in the fourth. Hilliard drove baseline for a layup and then took off straight down the lane for another bucket to open up a seven-point gap. Alexa Coras drilled a corner three, her only points of the night, to cut the lead back to four but Murphy was clutch again, hitting two at the line and nailing a long jumper that made it 48-41 with less than three minutes remaining.
In the semifinal against Medfield, the Tigers let and eight-point lead slip and had to go to overtime to get the win. On Saturday, Norwood put together the late rally. Olbrys scored on a put-back and Wlodkowski scored on an inbounds play to make it a one-possession game. After an OA turnover, Reen burst through the lane and scored plus a foul, but she was unable to make the free throw (Norwood was 10-for-22 from the line) and Murphy grabbed the rebound with 22.6 on the clock.
“My mantra is always defense, rebounds, and free throws, and tonight that was really the answer,” Clement-Holbrook said. “Especially late, especially when it was in bonus, Hilliard, Peper, Cooper, Murphy, they were all money. It was awesome.”
Murphy, who missed several games near the end of the season with a concussion, drilled both of her free throws to put OA up three. After Norwood missed two chances on the other end, the ball ended up in Peper’s hands to put the final touches on a championship season.
“One hundred percent confidence she was making both of them,” said Cooper. “She’s a great free throw shooter, great captain, just a great person to look up to overall.”
The sophomore added, “It’s good that we shared all of our moments together. I feel like collectively as a team we didn’t play selfish basketball, we played good team basketball to get this win. We all have confidence. We’re going to get that bucket no matter what.”
“Everybody has a part,” said Clement-Holbrook. “I always talk about a puzzle. Just because somebody’s piece is bigger than another or smaller than another, you pull that out and it doesn’t look like a puzzle any more.
“We really felt like we had a difficult challenge on our side of the bracket and I think with each progression and each game that we won I could see such incredible personal growth in each one of my players to the point where it was like building momentum for us…I’m so incredibly proud of them.”
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