Colleene Smith’s last-second layup capped a relentless fourth-quarter Hillhouse comeback and gave her team a 56-55 victory in front of a stunned crowd at Mercy Thursday night.
Hillhouse trailed 51-43 with 3:40 remaining in the game. From out of nowhere, an Academics squad that seemed to lack any momentum staged a furious comeback. A ruthless full-court press allowed Hillhouse to frequently force Mercy turnovers which led to open shots or opportunities at the free throw line. The Academics finally tied it up on a layup by the Smith with 13 seconds remaining, 54-54. Tigers freshman Kendra Landy responded by hitting one of two free throws with 11 seconds remaining, but Hillhouse was able to take advantage of a double team on its star guard Bria Holmes to find her backcourt mate Smith wide-open on the left side. Her layup fell in with less than two seconds remaining, setting of an Academics celebration.
After the game, Mercy Head Coach Tim Kohs was disappointed in how his squad fell apart in the closing minutes.
“They were down eight and they ratcheted up the pressure,” said Kohs. “That’s two games in a row that our ball-handling has been exploited. It’s hard to beat a team when you can’t get the ball up the floor. On top of that, we didn’t shoot free throws well down the stretch.”
“I assumed they would go to Holmes at the end,” he said. “Then when Smith got the ball-and I’ll have to look at the film-it was just like we fell away from her.”
Down the home stretch the overwhelming athleticism of Hillhouse made all the difference. Not only did Mercy fail to get the ball up the floor and subsequently commit turnovers a number of times against the press, but the Tigers also failed to get back and deny the faster Academics players open shots and penetration. Holmes, an All-State player who will be playing for West Virginia next season, was an offensive force during the comeback. Though she started slow, Holmes eventually finished with 29 points and scored seven back-breaking points in the final four minutes, demonstrating both her long-range shooting ability and overpowering strength in the post. Holmes single-handily kept pace with Mercy’s offense, which missed three of four free throws down the stretch. Her bucket that cut the lead to 54-52 with 27 seconds left caused the Tigers defense to completely key in on her on Hillhouse’s last two possessions, setting the stage for Colleene Smith’s last-second heroics.
“I’ve never seen a kid as long and athletic as Holmes,” said Kohs. “Yet instead of backing her away from the basket on rebounds, something we harped on, we seem to think we can get into a tip drill with her.”
Mercy got off to a sluggish start, falling behind Hillhouse 10-3 over the first three minutes and 15-10 after one. However, Mercy got on track thanks to a dedicated defensive effort and patient offensive play. They briefly grabbed the lead before going into halftime trailing 23-22.
As the third quarter went on, the strong ball-handling and shooting of the Tiger guards particularly that of junior guard Maria Weselyj, along with the team’s aggressive play in the paint on both ends, gave Mercy much of the momentum. They were able to neutralize Hillhouse’s offense and especially Holmes with aggressive defense. When Mercy scored the opening seven points of the fourth to lead 47-40 two minutes in, Hillhouse was unable to immediately react as the game seemed to be slipping out of the Academics grasp. And suddenly at the three minute mark, their full-court press led the whole course of the game to change and the roof caved in for Mercy.
“The middle of the fourth quarter hurt us,” said Kohs. “There were times we didn’t know what we were doing. We were double-teaming the wrong people and they were getting back door cuts on us. We had two breakaway layups that we missed too. If we had just made one play in those final minutes, we would have won. But we didn’t make a play.”
Smith had 15 points for Hillhouse. Weselyj led Mercy with 18 points, junior guard Jordyn Nappi scored 11 and junior forward Liz Falcigno had 10. Hillhouse, ranked second in the state, upped its record to 9-1 and Mercy, ranked in the state, fell to 8-3.
The Tigers play a third consecutive top-10 opponent on Monday when they travel to Waterbury in a matchup against undefeated and fifth-ranked Holy Cross.