Too much Pride

MANCHESTER – The trip to the championship game will have to wait another year for the Milford High School girls basketball team.

Poised to make its first title game since 1981, No. 1 Milford fell to No. 4 Merrimack Valley 51-43 in the Division II semifinals Monday at Southern New Hampshire University.

The Spartans (18-3) scored late in the third quarter to take their first lead of the game, 26-24, and were up 32-31 with 4:27 to play, but the Pride (17-4) closed the game by outscoring Milford 20-11 to reach the championship game for the first time since 2004.

Adelle Pitsas led Milford with 11 points while Rebecca Cleary added 10 points off the bench and Jessica Ryan had all eight of her points in the first half. Merrimack Valley got 17 points and 11 rebounds from Mayson Kimball while Cassidy Huckins chipped in 11 points.

But Merrimack Valley was 11 of 14 from the free throw line during that final stretch and was 18 of 28 at the line in the second half.

“In the fourth, we created a few fouls in the middle of the court or 80 feet away from the basket, and that was huge because it allowed them to get a free pass up the court and hit a few free throws,” Milford coach Steve Signor said. “That allowed them to stay in the game. They didn’t hit a lot of shots in the fourth, but they hit a lot of free throws. We’d hit a basket and they’d get two free throws and we can’t exchange that. That’s too many fouls and too many free throws.”

It was the second final four appearance in a row for Milford, after making it last year for the first time in 30 years.

But for most of the first quarter, Milford looked like the team that was playing on the larger court for the first time. The Spartans had just two points for more than seven minutes to start the game. In the first half, Milford was 4 of 23 from the field and turned the ball over 11 times.

“I think we were thinking too much,” Milford senior Taylor Steinbrecher said. “The crowd was a lot louder than I anticipated and I think that affected us. Offensively, that’s never been our strong point, and our defense kind of covers for that.”

Despite that, the Spartans only trailed by three, 11-8, when Cleary scored on a layup with 2:29 to play in the first half.

But that seemed to get the Pride going. After the teams traded 3-pointers, Merrimack Valley closed the half on a 6-1 run, including a layup by Mayson Kimball with 9.4 seconds left.

Things didn’t get any better to open the second half for Milford, as the Spartans were still down eight, 24-16, with 3:18 left third.

But another layup by Cleary cut the lead to six and after the teams combined to miss 7 of 8 free throws, Devany Pitsas converted a three-point play to make it a 24-22 deficit for the Spartans.

“Devany’s and-one was big, because it got the crowd back into it,” Milford senior Bri Hoffman said.

Adelle Pitsas made two free throws to tie the game with 21 seconds left and a transition layup by Erin McGuire as time expired in the quarter to give Milford its first lead of the game, 26-24.

“The third quarter was huge for us,” Signor said. “We’re resilient and we don’t like to go away. We battled back. We focused on getting one stop, one basket, one stop, one basket until we chipped back in there. The turnover difference started to even out and that was huge.”

The lead changed five times in the first four minutes of the fourth with Merrimack Valley going up 31-28 on a jumper by Huckins with 5:19 to play. Milford answered back on a putback by Devany Pitsas and Cleary added two free throws to give Milford its last lead, 32-31.

After holding the Pride to just one 3 all game to that point, Huckins nailed one from the left win to put Merrimack Valley up two. A jumper by McGuire tied it 34-34 with 3:41 to play, but after that, the Spartans struggled to make a stop.

“We were holding (Huckins) at bay for the whole game and she got a 3 which helped them,” Signor said. “We still didn’t do a good job knocking down shots when we were open. Early in the game, we missed four uncontested layups and you know that’s going to comeback to haunt you. Hats off to Merrimack Valley. They started that game with energy and they ended that game with energy.”

Milford was as close as one point three times, including 40-39 on another layup by Cleary with 1:50 to play. Down 42-39 with 1:13 to play, the Spartans had a chance to tie the game. Out of a timeout, Ryan had an open look from the top of the key, but her 3 was off the mark. Devaney Pitsas grabbed the rebound, missed a layup, and Merrimack Valley’s Emily Mulleavey was fouled on the rebound.

Mulleavey made the first free throw and missed the second, but Kimball grabbed the rebound and scored to make it 45-39 Pride with 1:04 left. After a Milford turnover, Mulleavey was at the line again, and this time, missed both free throws, but Kimball got the board again. The Pride made all of their final six free throws to put the game away.

The Pride will now face No. 6 Coe-Brown, which knocked off No. 2 Hanover in the first semifinal, in the final on Sunday at noon at SNHU.