It has not been an easy road to the Final Four for the two-time Division II champion Johnston Lady Panthers basketball team. In their first round state tournament game, the third-seeded Panthers rallied from an 18-point, second-half deficit to defeat the No. 14 Rogers at Ponaganset High School.
On Saturday night at Rhode Island College’s Murray Center, the Panthers once again faced a double-digit deficit in the second half against sixth-seeded Saint Mary’s Bay View. Johnston dug deep and edged the Lady Bengals in the final seconds for a 40-39 victory that punched its ticket to The Ryan Center in Kingston.
“We never quit, that’s the main thing,” said Johnston head coach Chris Corsinetti. “These kids love each other and do not want to let each other down. It does not surprise me that we came back.”
Both Johnston (22-2) and Bay View (19-8) struggled to get on the board as the game started. A Grace Hagberg free throw got the Bengals on the scoreboard first at the 10:58 mark. A Gabby DiRaimo basket would be Johnston’s first of the game soon after in what was Johnston’s only lead of the first half, 2-1.
Bay View built a 14-point lead thanks to eight first-half points by Madison D’Ambra , who threw down 30 points against Division III champion Tiverton in the first round.
Antonia Corsinetti’s 3 gave the Bengals a 22-8 lead, and they would take a 22-11 lead into the half.
“We were making bad decisions on offense at the beginning of the game,” Corsinetti said. “It took us a while to get into sync.”
The second half opened with Johnston making an 11-2 run, and it would take the lead on a Jordan Moretti basket, 25-24. Moretti started the rally by scoring eight points in a three and a half minute span.
D’Ambra, who netted 14 points, helped Bay View retake the lead at 28-25, but a Moretti lob to 6-foot-2 freshman Sarah Bandoma resulted in an easy basket, cutting the lead to one, 28-27.
Megan Philbrick and Amelia Moore would also make some big baskets for the Panthers early in the second half. DiRaimo’s free throws knotted the game at 35 with 2:08 left to play, and Moretti’s two free throws gave Johnston a 37-35 lead with just 1:27 left on the game clock. Moretti and DiRaimo would account for 25 of the Panthers’ 40 points, scoring 14 and 11 points, respectively.
Isabelle Palmisiano tied the game for the Bengals at 37, and D’Ambra would give her team a 39-37 lead with 20 ticks left on the clock. Perhaps the biggest play of the year for the Panthers would take place when Moretti found DiRaimo off an inbounds pass for an easy layup as she was fouled. DiRaimo would complete the three-point play for a slim Panther advantage, 40-39.
“We called Gabby’s number all game,” Corsinetti said. “She struggled at times, but she never gave up and never quit, that’s Gabby. That was a huge play. She could have folded and not want to take that shot, but she didn’t. She hit the free throw as well. What’s more clutch than that?”
“A brilliant coach drew up that inbounds play,” Moretti said. “Gabby came up big. I was looking for her the whole time and I knew she would get there.”
The Bengals had a chance to take the lead with only seconds remaining, but D’Ambra’s shot was off and the Panthers would hold on for their 17th straight win and another trip to the Final Four.
“D’Ambra hit some big shots, but I thought we did a decent job on her,” Corsinetti said. “We knew she was their go-to person and I know we frustrated her. We made sure when she got the ball in the paint that she did not get a good look at the basket. If I am going to war, I am going with Gabby and Jordan, they do not back down.”
“The first half of this game our minds just were not there,” Moretti said. “We were not playing Johnston basketball. At halftime, coach told us that we made mistakes and to get our heads in the game and keep playing, it is not over until that final buzzer goes off.”
Johnston will now face second-seeded Moses Brown in the semifinals of the open tournament Saturday at 2 p.m. at The Ryan Center. The Division I Quakers defeated the Panthers back in December, 50-40, one of only two losses by Johnston this season.
“Moses Brown is tough, especially when you have a player like Oluchi Ezemma,” Corsinetti said. “She is outstanding, but we have a week to plan for them. Ezemma separates herself from other players in the league. She is so fast and strong and is a special player. We definitely have our work cut out for us, but our kids have heart and there is no substitute for heart.”
No. 1 seed La Salle and No. 4 seed Barrington will square off in the other semifinal game. The same four teams made it to the Final Four last year with La Salle winning it all. Johnston is the only Division II team remaining in the tournament.
“We can win any game if we put our minds to it,” DiRaimo said. “We have nothing to lose being the only Division II team left in the tournament.”
“We just have to practice hard this week,” Moretti said.