LOWELL — If it’s true that defense wins championships, then the Bishop Fenwick girls basketball team may be on to something.
Saturday at the Tsongas Center in the North Division 3 championship game against No. 7 Bedford, the Crusaders’ trademark defense put on a clinic, holding the Buccaneers to just one point in the opening and closing quarters en route to a 45-22 win. Fenwick held Bedford to just 7-of-40 shooting from the floor (17.5%) and forced 21 turnovers to boot.
Truth be told, the Crusaders weren’t exactly lighting the place on fire. The game was still up for grabs going into the final eight minutes with Fenwick holding a 32-21 lead, but the Crusaders shut the door the rest of the way to advance to Tuesday’s state semifinals at TD Garden (2:15) against Catholic Conference League archrival Archbishop Williams, which cruised to its sixth straight South championship with a 69-45 win over Fontbonne Saturday.
Fenwick and Williams have owned the state title the last three years with the Archies winning titles in 2015 and 2017 and the Crusaders winning its first title in 2016.
Crusader coach Adam DeBaggis knows his team has a tough challenge on its hands against Williams, which handed Fenwick two regular season losses this year.
“We certainly don’t need a scouting report on them, but we have a lot of work to do. We gotta do something different, obviously,” he said. “We had them at halftime last time, but they just exploded offensively. They can score in bunches. They are so deep, their bottom five would probably start on most other teams, so they are tough and they have probably the best point guard in the state in Asiah Dingle. She can shoot, pass, drive and play great defense. I’ll enjoy this one today, but am going to watch some serious film tomorrow. The one thing I do know is we are going to have the shoot the ball better against them.”
Against Bedford, the game was just a parade of turnovers, air balls and missed layups for both teams in the early going.
With 1:06 left in the quarter, Fenwick held a 5-1 lead, but finished strong with six unanswered points on hoops from Elizabeth Pica, Jennie Meagher and Courtney Norton in the final minute to bump the lead to 11-1.
The Buccaneers got the lead down to eight, 17-9, four minutes into the second quarter after Jennifer Rennich drained a prayer of a three as the shot clock expired. The Crusaders ran off five straight to get the lead up to 13, 22-9, on a free throw by Jaxson Nadeau, another floater by Norton and a Sammi Gallant steal and dish to Nadeau on the fast break. Ten seconds later, Bedford answered with a couple of free throws by Nicole Bianco with two and a half minutes left in the half, but both teams went cold the rest of the way.
Bedford showed some life in the third quarter and opened with a 7-2 run to close to within six at 24-18 with 3:27 to go.
As she had in the third quarter in the semis against Stoneham, Meagher heated up. After a monster block (she finished with 9), she took a feed from Gallant in the low post and laid it in. Bedford countered with two free throws, then Meagher got them right back with another power move down low to make it 28-19. Another big block, her ninth of the game, led to a spinning layup up by Olivia Dipietro, then, with under 50 seconds to go, Norton found freshman Liz Gonzalez with a long baseball throw to stretch the lead back to 13, 32-19. A buzzer beater by Annie Cowen sent the teams into the final quarter with Fenwick on top, 32-21.
The fourth quarter was all Fenwick. The Crusaders opened the frame with a power drive layup by DiPietro and a couple of free throws by Gallant. Gallant, who had not made a basket since the St. Mary’s game in the quarters, hit the biggest basket of her season, draining a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3:50 to play after Fenwick had run the shot clock down to a few ticks. The shot bumped the Crusaders’ lead to 20 at 41-21.
“Sammi is just a big time player as it takes a different type of player to miss shots all night then hit a big one in the fourth quarter,” said DeBaggis. “That shot put the game away, that was the first time I felt relief when that shot went in. Without her, I don’t know where we would be. She is just one of the most composed point guards I’ve ever had.”
With 1:11 left, Norton capped the game scoring with a layup, prompting both coaches to empty their benches.
“It was hard, particularly in the third quarter. It felt like it was going to be one of those games that wasn’t going to go our way,” said DeBaggis. “The way the momentum was going, it felt like we were getting fouled and not getting the calls. It felt bad for a while but it always comes down to the girls at a certain point always seem to toughen up mentally and pull it through.”
Norton finished with a game-high 12 points, while Meagher finished with 8 points, 9 blocks and 6 rebounds. DiPietro scored 10 points and pulled down 5 boards, while Gallant finished with 6 points, 6 assists and 3 boards. Nadeau (5 points, 3 assists, 2 steals) and Mary O’Brien (5 rebounds, block) also contributed.
“Jennie is droven right now,” said DeBaggis. “It seemed like she had a million blocks, and inside, she’s so confident now scoring, and Olivia may just be the most improved on the team. She just keeps playing better and better.”
DeBaggis said senior Fredi DiGuglielmo, who missed the game after straining her Achilles in the Stoneham game, nonetheless was a key contributor.
“It’s tough without her because when we are not scoring, she is the one who scores a lot of the times and people have to think about her shooting threes, so we were definitely at a loss without her,” DeBaggis said. “Her enthusiasm tonight and over the last four years has been outstanding.”
Bedford and Fenwick both finished 11-9 in the regular season, but their records were no factors in their rides to the championship game.
The Crusaders, the No. 8 seed, were 11 points down in the fourth quarter to top-seeded St. Mary’s, 50-41, but they rallied to stun the Spartans, finishing the game with a 14-2 run to claim a 55-52 win and advance to the semifinals against another Spartans’ team in Stoneham.
No. 7 Bedford was also playing the role of spoiler in its half of the bracket, defeating last year’s North champs Amesbury, the No. 2 seed, in the quarterfinals by a score of 61-58. The Buccaneers then upended No. 3 seeded Shawsheen 54-51 in the semifinals to set up the championship game against Fenwick, who is no stranger to big games, having been to the finals in each of the last three years with one state championship title to its credit.