LOWELL — The St. Mary’s girls basketball team was a little like a distance runner scratching and clawing to the finish line, with just enough left to win the race.
It wasn’t for lack of ability, stamina or effort. The No. 4 Spartans had all of the above. It was lack of players — specifically Gabriella Torres and Nicolette D’Itria, both of whom had to leave the game within five minutes of each other in the third quarter with ankle injuries.
Still, St. Mary’s had enough Saturday to defeat No. 2 Amesbury, 59-48, to win the Division 3 North championship at the Paul E. Tsongas Arena.
“It feels almost funny to say, but sometimes you get a big lead like that, and all you think about is how do we get to the finish line,” said coach Jeff Newhall. “You can’t just say ‘we’re going to milk the clock’ and stop playing, because the other team wants to go to the Boston Garden too.
“And they came back,” said Newhall, alluding to the fact that the Indians were down by 20 points midway through the fourth quarter and clawed their way to an eight point deficit late in the game before St. Mary’s, 17-6, scored the final three points.
The big story in this game was the way Pam Gonzalez, Olivia Matela and Jannise Avelino took over after Torres and D’Itria went down. Gonzalez finished the game with 20 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and three assists. And she was generally everywhere on the court , posting up Amesbury players, skying for rebounds, and even helping Van Nguyen — pressed into action after Torres and D’Itria, both guards, got hurt — bring the ball up.
“I have to say that she is one of the greatest kids I’ve coached,” Newhall said of Gonzalez. “Whatever she had to do in this game, she did.”
Matela, a junior, finished with 15 points, four of them on three-pointers while Avelino, also a junior, collected 11 rebounds and blocked three shots.
“Up here (Tsongas Arena) the high school 3-point line was a few inches closer to the hoop than the college one,” Newhall said. “You can’t see it too good, but you can see it. I noticed though that Olivia was sinking them from the college line during warmups, so I didn’t tell her about it.”
The Spartans will play Archbishop Williams in the Division 3 state semifinal Wednesday (2 p.m.) at TD Garden in Boston.
St. Mary’s was in control for most of the game, despite some tense moments that occured in the second quarter and again in the final period. After taking a 17-5 lead at the end of the first quarter, both Flannery O’Connor (18 points) and Allison Napoli (12) spearheaded a 15-2 run to grab a 20-19 lead by the middle of the third quarter.
But Gonzalez (2) and Matela (3) quickly reversed that trend and the Spartans coasted to halftime with a 31-23 lead.
St. Mary’s looked as if it would run away and hide in the third, scoring the first seven points to go up by 15 (38-23). But then D’Itria rolled her ankle trying to collect a rebound and had to be helped off the court. Moments later, Torres went down with her ankle injury. And although St. Mary’s maintained its double-digit lead into the fourth quarter, Amesbury showed plenty of life, whittling that advantage down to eight. But it was too little, too late for the Indians, who end their season at 18-5.