Slow start in semis doomed Spartans

It would be easy to look at the final two minutes of Monday’s Division II semifinal and say the Milford High School girls basketball team lost it down the stretch.

The top-seeded Spartans were outscored 13-6 by No. 4 Merrimack Valley in those final 120 seconds, with the Pride shooting 11 of 14 from the free throw line to end the game.

But as the Pride’s lead began to grow, Milford was forced to foul to extend the game and hope Merrimack Valley would miss its free throws. That didn’t happen.

No, this game was lost for the Spartans in its first seven minutes, when Milford looked nothing like the team that had won 18 out of 20 games to that point.

The game was nine seconds old when the Pride took a 2-0 lead, grabbing the opening tip and scoring with no trouble against the division’s stingiest of defenses. Sure, Merrimack Valley went cold on offense for the next three minutes, but so did Milford.

The Spartans uncharacteristically turned the ball over 11 times in the first half and made just 4 of 23 field goals, so despite achieving their goal of holding the opponent to 10 points a quarter, they were still down eight at halftime.

“Starting off the game, I was kind of hoping that the inexperience of the other team would rattle them a little on offense, but it seemed to turn out the other way around,” Milford coach Steve Signor said. “Turnovers at the beginning of the game, that first quarter, that contributed to a few baskets of theirs.”

Signor also knew his team wouldn’t give up, and that’s no surprise. The Spartans haven’t been the kind of team to turtle when things got tough, so it shouldn’t have been a shock to anyone when Milford took the lead in the second half.

Watching the fourth quarter unfold, you had the feeling the Spartans would come up with the one or two stops they’d gotten all year to put the game away, but that defensive stand just never came.

“Especially when we were up, if we could have gotten a stop and then scored one more,” senior Jennifer Dupuis said, “it really would have made a difference.”

The last year has made a difference for Milford. When the Spartans were in the final four a season ago, they seemed happy to be there, and after losing to eventual-champion Lebanon, there were hugs and smiles and congratulations.

While there was some of that after Monday’s game, there were plenty more tears, at the missed opportunity, but also at the end of what became a very close team.

“We’re more than a team, we’re a family and that made a difference,” senior Bri Hoffman said. “There wasn’t just one girl scoring all the points. Every night, we all had to come and show up.”

They did it this year, despite losing their leading scorer (Dina Pitsas) and sixth-man (Brittney White) to graduation, and two players (Kaitlyn Matthews and Casey Phelps) who played key roles as sophomores but had to sit out all year with injuries as juniors.

Although Milford will lose three seniors – Dupuis, Hoffman and Taylor Steinbrecher – the leading scorers from Monday’s game will all return.

“We’re losing three seniors, three starters, but we’re hopefully getting back two girls who have been out the entire year,” Signor said. “Those are two juniors, one of whom was real huge in the playoffs for us (in 2013). Hopefully those two will be healthy and come back strong next year. The two freshmen (Erin McGuire and Devany Pitsas) with a year under their belt, they played pretty strong being freshmen on a court like this. Hopefully it will continue and the younger girls will strive to be like this and reach a place like this.”

That place is somewhere the Spartans only could have dreamed of a few years ago.

This was a program that went without a playoff berth from 1992 to 2006. Last year was the first time Milford won a playoff game in 20 years and the first it reached the semifinals in 30.

This season’s 18 wins and No. 1 seed were the best in a long time, if ever. With so many experienced players returning, one can only imagine what the 2014-15 season might have in store for Milford.

Joe Marchilena can be reached at 594-6478 or jmarchilena@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Marchilena on Twitter
(@Telegraph_JoeM).