SPRINGFIELD — Down 10 points at halftime in the Division 1 state final Saturday at MassMutual Center, confidence remained high for the Springfield Central girls’ basketball team.
That confidence was well founded. The Golden Eagles outscored Braintree, 41-15, during a dominant second half on their way to a 61-45 victory, earning the school’s first MIAA state championship since 2007.
After an impressive run, Braintree (21-5) fell just short of its third title in four seasons.
For Springfield Central (22-3), which fell to the Wamps in the 2015 state final, Saturday’s victory tasted even sweeter.
“We relied on their experience a little bit,” said Springfield Central coach Erik Maurer. “There was a time in the first quarter where we were a little taken back by the run [the Wamps] were making at us, and I thought our seniors really solidified us by making some big shots and keeping us close enough to make our run.”
Led by a senior trio of Ishanna Brown Jones (12 points), Phyness Baldwin (14 points, six rebounds), and sharpshooter Sha’raya Haines Hughes (game-high 17 points), the Golden Eagles caught fire in the third quarter.
Although hot shooting propelled the Golden Eagles to the state title, they opened 0 for 16 from deep to spot Braintree a 30-20 halftime lead.
Still, Maurer encouraged his players to keep firing.
“At halftime, we talked about how a couple 3-point shots either way were the only difference,” said Maurer. “But all of our adjustments came on the defensive end. We switched up from man-to-man and went to more of a zone press. “
Springfield Central used that pressure to force 11 third-quarter turnovers, while finally connecting from deep. Baldwin and Haines combined for 17 points, while draining three triples in the third quarter.
“We got a little flustered and just weren’t able to get it over that halfcourt line,” said Braintree coach Kristen McDonnell.
“Our players don’t usually get flustered and it was a little bit of an anomaly for us, but [Springfield Central] got a little adrenaline and then the momentum. To their credit, they played a great second half.”
Flustered, but not cowed, Braintree came back to make it a 44-41 game early in the fourth quarter on a Mackenzie Moore 3, but Haines immediately responded with a triple to help Springfield Central open a 49-41 lead before a fire alarm caused a lengthy delay.
Throughout a chaotic second half, the Golden Eagles remained resolute and put the game further out of reach by forcing more turnovers (28 total) and knocking down free throws over the final minutes.
For Braintree, this loss represents a bittersweet ending to a great season.
“They’re a really special senior class, led by Keelah Dixon,” McDonnell said. “The kids kind of beat to her drum and you can tell that those five have been so close. They trust each other, they have each other’s back and I think we overachieved this year because of that. They played their hearts out.”
Dixon (14 points) and Moore (12 points) led the Wamps.
Yet in the end, it was Springfield Central’s afternoon.
“We just weren’t done fighting,” said Brown. “[The Wamps] had us frustrated early, but beating them is a huge load of our shoulders and it means so much to us.”