Holiday champions

NASHUA – The Milford High School girls basketball team knew what was at stake Sunday, but was hardly fazed by it.

According to senior Adelle Pitsas, the Spartans went through their walkthrough before the Nashua North Holiday Classic championship game against Winnacunnet loose and worry free. Sure, they were serious about it, and were certainly focused. A win would be a big lift for the program as it enters the meat of its 2014-15 schedule. However, Pitsas said she and her teammates weren’t consumed by big-game pressure.

The reason? There was simply nothing for Division II Milford to lose against its second D-I foe in as many days.

“We came into this thing like we’re the underdogs,” said Pitsas, whose Spartans excelled with their second straight impressive showing as they topped Winnacunnet 47-41 to win the holiday tournament championship. “We have nothing to gain, nothing to lose and that’s what we were thinking during our walkthrough. We’re going to play the best we can and if that’s not enough than we need to get better.”

Milford dominated the Warriors in the second quarter to take control, and never folded as it shut Winnacunnet down on the defensive end in the second half. The Spartans, as a result, sent a message to the rest of the state with their performance over the last 10 quarters of the tournament, including an equally impressive 54-49 win over Nashua North on the Titans’ home floor Saturday.

“We set out before this tournament, we really wanted to win it, make a statement,” said senior Jessica Ryan, who led Milford with 13 points and three 3-pointers Sunday. “We came in really focused and beat two really good Division I teams. I’m just proud of my team and how far we’ve come.”

The result of the tournament was particularly shocking given the way the Spartans started the weekend against an inferior Pelham team Friday, needing a second-half comeback to advance.

“I just think we’re growing every single game. Sometimes you grow through losses, we’re just fortunate to have the players that we have so we can grow through wins,” Milford coach Richard Parent said. “I think throughout this whole tournament we grew as a team, we did things we’ve been working on and we did them better as the three days went on. It’s good to grow by winning.”

Milford appeared as if it was going to be in a dogfight Sunday as the two teams traded throughout the first half of the second quarter of a back-and-forth contest.

Then the Spartans caught fire.

Trailing 22-20 with 3:05 left in the first half, Pitsas buried a 3-pointer ti put Milford back on top, 23-22. Winnacunnet responded with a bucket from Margaret Knollmeyer (18 points) on the other end, but Pitsas (10 points) followed up with another 3 and the Spartans never looked back, embarking on a 10-0 run to give it a 33-24 lead at halftime.

“We just got open shots,” Parent said. “We’ve got girls who can make 3s so when they’re left open they can make them. They’re patient, that’s the key. They’re not putting up shots that are being closed out, they put up good shots.”

Pitsas and Ryan combined for five 3-pointers for the game. Ryan said the key to Milford’s offensive success was its speed advantage in transition over Winnacunnet’s clear edge in size.

The Spartans limited the Warriors to just five points in the third quarter, and led by as many as 12 points early in the fourth quarter.

The closest Winnacunnet got came with 44 seconds left in the game when Knollmeyer finished a put-back attempt at the rim while fouled to cut the Milford lead to 45-40.

Knollmeyer missed the free-throw attempt and Devany Pitsas made a pair of free throws with 29 seconds to play to ice the game and complete the upset.

“We’ve never won a holiday tournament championship, so I think it’s great for the whole entire team,” Adelle Pitsas said.

“I love it. I’d rather be the underdog than someone who’s projected to win. It’s great.”