Final Four fever grips Saints

Final Four fever grips Saints

St. Raphael Academy junior Paige O’Brien, left, shakes off Westerly senior Isis Hamelin as she drives to the basket during last Saturday night’s Elite Eight game at Rhode Island College. O’Brien scored a team-high 13 points to help the Saints defeat the Bulldogs, 45-33. (Breeze photos by Kayla Panu)
Girls’ hoop team reaches state semifinals by topping Westerly

PROVIDENCE – For the first time in five seasons, the St. Raphael Academy girls’ basketball team is heading to the Final Four of the Open Tournament, but before booking their trip to URI’s Ryan Center, the Saints needed to survive a physical contest with Westerly in last Saturday night’s Elite Eight game at Rhode Island College’s Murray Center before coming away with a 45-33 victory.

“We knew Westerly was going to come out with a very aggressive defense – man-to-man – so we only tried to focus on that all week,” SRA head coach Tammy Drape said. “It’s a big stage, so we just wanted our kids to keep their composure and not panic, and we were basically focused on our defense.”

The 3rd-seeded Saints, who are 20-5 and winners of 11 of their last 12 games, will now prepare to play on an even bigger stage at the Ryan Center. They will play 2nd-seeded South Kingstown, which posted a 52-31 victory over 7th-seeded Classical on Tuesday night in their Elite Eight game, on Saturday at 2 p.m. Top-seeded La Salle, which has won the last two Division I championships, and 4th-seeded Barrington will play in the other semifinal at noon.

South Kingstown, which is 24-3, topped the Saints twice this winter, during the regular season by a 53-47 score and in the Division I semifinals, 42-35.

As for for the Saints' game with the Bulldogs last Saturday, “it was a good test,” Drape said. “We just have to remind them to stay mentally focused. I think they’ll be okay.”

The 6th-seeded Bulldogs, which reached the Division II finals before losing to Classical, weren’t intimated by the D-I Saints, and with the physicality of both teams, the Saints got into some early foul trouble, but Drape used a rounded out bench.

Leading the way offensively for SRA was junior Paige O’Brien with 13 points. Sophomore Tatum Forbes scored nine, her classmate, Amaya Dowdy had six, and Monet Gailloux and Elizabeth Bruno each tossed in five.

“We tried to protect the ball,” Drape said. “We just got in some early foul trouble, so we’re going to work on that because that limits us. I thought Sierra Gonzalez played a great game; Tatum did a really good job at the point, and I thought Amaya played great too.”

Westerly’s Megan Albamonti, who scored her 1,000th career point and grabbed her 1,000th career rebound this season, tossed in a game-high 16 points.

“We knew that type of player that Megan was,” Drape added. “She’s very good inside, so that was our biggest issue. And we also know that they have some great shooters, Isis Hamelin and (Lauren) Dobson, who can hit some three-pointers. We were focused on the inside, but I told them to play good defense and contain the three-point shooters.”

The Bulldogs held a 10-6 lead, but a basket by Kaylee Mulligan and a three-pointer by Forbes gave the Saints the lead and kicked off a 14-3 run that gave them a 20-13 halftime lead.

There was no let up in the second half for the Saints, and they kept up the aggressive defense, despite Gonzalez and Dowdy both picking up their third fouls just five minutes into the half.

With a steal by Forbes that led to a basket by Gailloux, the Saints went up by nine, 24-15, but the Bulldogs didn’t quit and trimmed their deficit down to 26-22 with nine minutes left.

“They’re a good, good team,” Drape said about Westerly, a team that Saints had topped by a 56-23 score in a non-league game on Dec. 14. “We played them earlier in the year, and I knew that it wasn’t going to be like when we played them the first time.”

The Saints then went on a 10-0 run to take a 36-22 lead. The Bulldogs managed to cut their deficit in half, 37-30, but were unable to come any closer to the lead.

“We have to go back to the drawing board a little bit and get ready for the Final Four,” said Drape, who plans to work on rebounding and boxing out, as she noted that Westerly had a lot of second chances off missed shots.

In their Open Tournament opener last Wednesday night at Johnston High, the Saints posted a 39-32 victory over 14th-seeded North Kingstown that saw Bruno lead the way with 14 points and Dowdy add seven.

St. Raphael Academy sophomore Amaya Dowdy, right, battles her way inside for a layup as she is defended by Westerly senior Megan Albamonti.