History Made: Sacred Heart girls win first ever district championshipBy ANDREW ABADIE,
LUMBERTON – Two months ago, the Sacred Heart girls’ basketball team sat with an overall record of 3-6 before Matt O’Keefe was made head coach.
“I told them even then that we had the talent to possibly reach our goal as far as get to the division championship and try to win and host a South State game,” O’Keefe said. “They thought I was insane at the time. The improvement we made since that first game was pretty remarkable.”
O’Keefe helped lead Sacred Heart to the program’s second-ever appearance in a district title game and second ever winning season. However, on Friday, the Crusaders and O’Keefe made a first for the program, which came down to the final 30 seconds.
After Lumberton took the lead after trailing by as much nine points, Sarah Gallardo toed the free throw line late trailing 56-55 in which Gallardo knocked down both shots for the Crusaders.
From there, Sacred Heart held off the Panthers’ last effort before O’Keefe and the Crusaders came away with the school’s first-ever district championship in a 57-56 win over top-seeded Lumberton.
“The kids deserve all the credit,” O’Keefe said. “I’ve pushed them pretty hard. They deserve all the accolades. I just told them that we could be a basketball program besides a soccer program.”
Neither team found much separation in the first half as Sacred Heart held a 26-23 lead at halftime. However, Lumberton faced a lingering issue. The Panthers were forced to bench Jennifer Holder in the first half due to an in-school rule. Instead, Lumberton head coach Jonathan Edwards started Kiersten Joseph, which according to Edwards, altered his team’s rotation.
“One of my top players had to sit out in the first half,” Edwards said. “That hurt us as far as our continuity. We had to throw somebody else in.
“The thing about [not having Jennifer] was with the rotation I have set up; we have occasional options to start the first half. In the second half, I have a whole other lineup that I start. The fact that I had to start [Kiersten], I think, took a lot away from her game.”
Sacred Heart found separation at the start of the half with Gracie Falla spearheading the Crusader offense through the fast break.
“Worked really well together on offense this game,” Falla said. “We learned from our mistakes last game. We knew we had to get something done to put some points on the board. I think [Lumberton] helped us out a little bit; they gave us some pace. They switched from man-to-man to zone defense. Coach adjusted to that and we did well on our free throws.”
Falla scored 10 of her 26 team-leading points in the third quarter.
“I don’t think people realize what a tremendous athlete she is outside of soccer,” O’Keefe said. “I’ve coached for over 30 years and she can play any sport there is. She was deceptive with her speed and was going through double teams a lot of times and dishing the ball to her teammates.
“Tonight, Gracie Falla put a show on. She was unbelievable.”
Sacred Heart took a 38-30 lead, which forced Lumberton into an uphill battle midway through the third quarter.
Leading the Panthers in scoring was Makia Willis, who scored 16 points and Jameya Johnson, who totaled 11 points. Despite finding late success, the Panthers racked up 22 fouls, which according to Edwards, took away momentum from his team.
“[Officiating] took us completely out of our game, but I tell [the team] that they have to play through things like that and maybe that’s the game that we needed,” Edwards said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Despite the loss, Edwards gave credit to O’Keefe’s success.
“He had a great game plan and he has done an awesome job with those girls for taking over when he did,” Edwards said.
The Panther outscored Sacred Heart 20-15 in the fourth quarter to take the late lead before Gallardo stepped on the free-throw line.
“Coach told me that I could do it,” Gallardo said. “I had been working on my free throws all season and he knows that if I believed in myself and his message that we could go anywhere.
“We have a young team. [Winning the tournament] shows that we are here for the next few years. We are just ready to play next year and this year and keep going.”
For the first round of the 1A playoffs, Sacred Heart will host West Bolivar and Lumberton will host West Tallahatchie on Monday with both games set for 6 p.m.
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Sacred Heart 57, Lumberton 56
Sacred Heart (14-11) – Madalynn Hasselbring 0 2-4 2, Sarah Gallardo 2 5-6 9, Ella Mercer 1 2-2 4, Gracie Falla 9 6-10 26, Kate Gallardo 6 2-4 14. Field Goals: 18, Free Throws: 17-26, Total Points 57.
Lumberton (16-7) – Kirsten Joseph 3 3-5 8, Talia Dantzler 1 0-0 2, Jameya Johnson 4 0-1 11, Jennifer Holder 1 0-2 1, Tanna Edwards 2 5-8 10, Makia Willis 6 1-2 16, Akaja Washing 0 0-0 0, Kelsey Joseph 0 0-0 0. Field Goals: 17, Free Throws: 9-18, Total Points: 56.
SH 14 10 15 15 - 57
LB 14 9 9 20 - 56
3-Pointers – SH 2 (Falla 2), LB 9 (Johnson 3, Willis 3, Joseph 2, Edwards). Total Fouls: SH 14, LB 22. Fouled Out: Falla, Holder.