But it was overtime now. The Patriots were as even with South River as if it was zero-zero.
Bagnell fired, and when her shot slipped through the rim, the senior pumped the air, euphoric. Moments later, as South River attempted to score, Sydney Faulcon punched the ball, which soared into the hands of Bagnell.
That’s the kind of energy the Patriots aim to carry all the way through the state tournament.
Old Mill knows it can always rely on Faulcon to pick the offensive rebound and pop it in for a putback, but Saturday, the senior center stepped it up to overdrive. Faulcon stockpiled 29 points and 17 rebounds, one of two Patriots to earn a double-double. Junior Deja Atkinson tallied 13 points and 11 boards.
“We seemed to get the ball more to Syd, and not strictly off of offensive rebounds. She is what she is, and she had a monster game,” Patriots coach Rick Smith said. “Thank God for that. She played hard tonight. Not that she doesn’t every night, but she battled through the defensive pressure they were putting on her.”
By now, Old Mill knew which Seahawks to guard heavily. In practice, the Patriots worked on defending the most dangerous ball-handlers – sophomore Harley Herndon and junior Julia Fitzwater.
As the game waxed on, Smith made certain his players never forgot. Senior Destiny Galloway took the message to heart, hounding Herndon from transition to the paint. Junior Jaya Dews was as effective chasing her Seahawk marks down. In her first action off the bench, Dews converted a steal for a layup.
“I thought they did a real good job,” Smith said. “Probably most of my hoarse throat is from yelling at them to stay up. They didn’t quite get the idea that I wanted them on [Herndon] like a shadow, on both of them. Other than that, we executed well.”
To South River coach Mike Zivic, the Patriots’ defense had less to do with the Seahawks’ lackluster offensive performance than themselves. Long before South River began to find fruition on wide open shots, it was missing baskets on the same kind of wide open shots.
“We saw a lot more pressure last game. That wasn’t the problem,” Zivic said. “We got what we needed. We just weren’t able to convert. That’s what kind of stunk.”
It was never going to be a high-scoring affair, both teams knew, and Old Mill edged South River out, 10-8, at the end of the first.
Faulcon ensured it wasn’t going to be a two-point game for long. She roped in a layup first, leading a 6-0 run to start the second quarter.
At the same time, the Patriots struggled with fouls. In the middle of the quarter, Old Mill outnumbered its hosts 7-1 in fouls called; by the end of the half, they’d have six more than South River, 8-2.
“We just stayed on our man. We just had to help each other out on defense,” Faulcon said.
Though the calls disrupted the Patriots’ flow, though, it didn’t stop them from keeping their inside shooters driving.
Junior Mikiyah Mallet shipped the ball all the way up-court for an unchallenged two points. South River began to string together a rhythm – especially as senior guard Kathleen Sullivan (19 points) landed a wide-open 3-pointer – but the buzzer cut them off before they could overtake the Pats, leaving them to trail at the half, 25-23.
As much as Old Mill had figured its defensive game out, though, offense was still an issue. The Patriots made anxious passes and shots. South River had pretty effectively stopped Galloway from doing any serious offensive damage; the senior, who normally tops the Old Mill stat book, finished with four points and went 0 for 5 on 3-point attempts.
“We just weren’t hitting them tonight,” said Smith on perimeter shooting. “The biggest one was Julia’s at the end, that was big. That was huge. We’re going to still shoot from threes. We’re going to keep people away from Syd as much as possible, and if we hit those threes, they have to do that.”
Fitzwater found a touch more success beyond the arc as the fourth quarter began. She erased South River’s five-point deficit to two with a trey.
But as South River’s offense improved, so did Old Mill’s passing. As Mallet sailed down the floor, the Seahawks closed in on her. Mallet dished it to Faulcon who, of course, deposited the basket. As Old Mill called a timeout, a burst of excitement shot through Mallet’s body as she screamed, “Let’s go!”
A minute remained. If South River was ever going to take the lead, it needed to do it soon. Junior Ashlynn Burrows (15 points) decided she’d be the one to do it.
First, the Seahawks capitalized on turnovers, putting the ball back in their hands. Burrows found open space and hit for two, closing the score to 44-43. Then, she plucked an offensive rebound, earning both a layup and the first South River lead of the afternoon.
A team who’d manage to ward its opponents off all game only to lose the advantage in the last minute can crumble. It was up to Faulcon to make sure Old Mill wouldn’t.
“I saw my role as a leader on the team, keeping everyone’s head focused,” she said. “Not the record we had during the season. At county championships. We had to stay focused and game now.”
Mallet took the ball to the net. Faulcon made sure she was there to put it in.
Tied at 46, the two bidders for the state tournament headed to overtime.
“She’s going to be a key to our success down the road,” Smith said of Mallet. “Her, Deja – if they’re on, we’re in good shape.”
Trailing 52-46 at the beginning of overtime, the Seahawks struck back as Sullivan hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
“Kathleen Sullivan just stepped up big time, and she hadn’t done that in the previous two games,” Smith said. “She alone kept them in, was the difference that we weren’t expecting.”
But Atkinson wouldn’t let them tie, let alone take the lead, again. When she had a layup opportunity, she completed it. All four foul shots she was awarded, she hit.
By defeating South River on Saturday, Old Mill took the rubber match, having already avenged its one-point loss to the Seahawks earlier in the winter by beating them in the county championship. Regardless of the way things turned out, Zivic relishes how his team fought to the end.
“I’m going to miss the heck out of all my seniors,” he said. “This group bought in. [My assistant coaches], myself, all season, we talked about being part of a team. The sum is more than the parts. These kids just bought in, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way they played, how hard they played.”