By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
Notre Dame girls' hoops on Cloud Nine after record-setting Mercer County Tournament win
There had already been a 45-minute delay in the Mercer County Tournament girls’ basketball championship game due to a leak in the roof of the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. Things finally appeared to be cleared up and the players were back on the floor.
Suddenly, Irish forward Sam Widmann was slogging a towel around with her foot, drying up another wet spot that suddenly appeared. As if winning tournament MVP wasn’t enough, Widmann was playing custodian in order to put the finishing touches on Notre Dame’s 69-57 victory over Ewing on Feb. 24.
SEE A PHOTO GALLERY FROM THE GAME, HERE.
“We got on the court and after the five-minute warm-up, we’re like ‘Let’s finish this, let’s get it done with!’” Widmann said. “All of a sudden the ref said ‘There’s water.’ I was like ‘You gotta be kidding me! Just ignore it, we’ll play with it.’”
Widmann put her money – in this case her foot – where her mouth was as she tried it to dry it herself and get play resumed. But once more the players were sent back to the bench for another 10 minutes as the fierce rains outside kept finding ways to slip through the roof.
“It was just a hot mess,” Widmann said. “All I kept thinking about was the Super Bowl and how the lights went out. I’m like ‘Oh my goodness, this is gonna be horrible.’”
Irish coach James Martinos was also thinking about that 2012 classic between the Ravens and 49ers.
“It was like the Super Bowl from a few years ago,” he said. “The lights went out and the whole game changed after that.”
This game changed enough to make Irish fans nervous. Play was halted with 6:37 remaining and the Irish enjoying a 58-39 lead. Lawrenceville-based Notre Dame (23-3) had enjoyed a double-digit lead since going up 16-4 after one quarter and led by as much as 22 late in the third quarter.
There didn’t seem much chance the Blue Devils (21-3) would mount a comeback. Especially since the team sat on its bench while the Irish did a few exercises during the 55-minute delay.
“We’re walking around, we’re playing hand games. It was unbelievable,” Widmann said. “We were just trying to stay stretched out. Ewing came out as we expected, with heart. They made it an interesting game.”
Did they ever.
When play resumed the Devils scored 10 straight points en route to a 14-2 run that sliced the gap to 60-53 with 3:16 remaining. Suddenly, it was anyone’s game as Martinos called timeout.
“I told my team ‘Relax, it’s a seven point game, you’re going to win the game, just do your thing,’” Martinos said. “We went back out, hit a couple big shots.”
And none were bigger than the one delivered by Kaiya Burnett. The sophomore guard took a pass from Nneka Ezeigbo and calmly drained a 3-pointer to push the advantage to 10. Ewing missed at the other end and Widmann hit two foul shots. A turnover led to an Ezeigbo bucket, the score was 67-53 and order was restored in the Irish world.
“I saw Nneka drive and then fire in the air to Kaiya, and I was like ‘Kaiya’s gonna drain it, I know it,’” Widmann said. “She drained it. The next thing we had to do was fight the battle on defense, get a stop.”
“That was just a huge shot by Kaiya,” Martinos said.
Widmann and Burnett each finished with 18 points while Ezeigbo had 11 points and 14 rebounds. In four MCT games, Ezeigbo grabbed 65 rebounds, an average of over 16 per game.
There were other contributors as well. Early in the game, Notre Dame struggled and shot 5-for-11 with 11 turnovers in the first quarter. But the Irish still led by 12 and were up 38-21 at halftime.
“We really came out and knew we weren’t playing our best,” Widmann said. “We knew a lot of teams would be grateful to be up by 17 but we knew we were such a better team than what we were playing like.
“I think it was the fact it was a championship game, some of us had nerves, some of us were new to this. There were a lot of different aspects but the fact we were able to hold it together to play decent, that’s what really made the difference.”
Unheralded players like Eve Crawford had seven of her 11 points in the half while Lauren Kiszely and Olivia Cleale came off the bench to provide a spark.
“Olivia Cleale and Lauren Kiszely in the semifinals and finals came in both games and played tremendous,” Martinos said. “Olivia hit a big shot right before the half, played great defense, she’s such a smart player.
“Eve Crawford did a great job, she played well in the first half. She covered (high scoring) Carly Sexton and did a good job on her. I knew Ewing was going to play well. I thought it would be a much more competitive game than the first time we played.”
Led by Ezeigbo and Widmann, Notre Dame was a team on a mission in winning a county-record ninth MCT title. The Irish all felt they did not have their A game in losing to TCA in last year’s finals, and were not about to make the same mistake.
“We all had a bad taste in our mouth, it was so unbelievable, the upset that it was,” Widmann said. “But it definitely taught us a lesson. We came in there thinking it would be easy and we would win.
“This year we came out and said ‘We’re not gonna let that happen.’ All year I said if we lose it’s because we didn’t work hard or the other team is better, not because we weren’t ready to play. I think we were ready to play and that made the difference.”
Who would have thought, however, that a “rain delay” in basketball might have made a negative difference?
“You can’t plan for it,” Martinos said, “because it never happens.”
Well, almost never.
Fortunately for the Irish, they are 1-0 when it does[[In-content Ad]]