WORCESTER -- During the school day on Friday, the members of the Westford Academy girls basketball team were honored with a surprise video montage in front of the entire student body.
Div. 1 girls final
It served as a well-worthy salute to a whirlwind two weeks. Westford's 2013-14 basketball journey was historically great -- no doubt the best in recent memory -- as the Grey Ghosts played their way all the way to the Division 1 state championship game on Saturday.
The hope was that one final celebration would take place on Saturday night. Samantha Hyslip and Hannah Hackley, Westford's phenomenal senior duo, did all they could to make that happen. Unfortunately, a brilliantly talented Braintree team stood in the way and had no intention of moving.
Braintree defeated Westford, 57-46, to win the state title in front of a huge crowd at the DCU Center.
Hyslip had 24 points (8-for-8 from the line) and 12 rebounds, and Hackley had 14 points and eight rebounds. But their remarkable efforts were no match for the deep Wamps (24-1), who had eight players score and got 17 points, 15 rebounds and five assists from junior guard Ashley Russell, the state's Gatorade Player of the Year.
The Grey Ghosts, who finished 22-5 in their first year in Central Mass., certainly didn't hang their heads. They displayed nothing but pride.
"I think this is one of the best experiences of my entire life," said Hackley, with a glowing smile on her face. "It was two weeks of just straight spirit days at school.
Braintree's only loss this season came to Christ the King -- an out-of-state school. The Wamps will graduate just three seniors.
"This was a great experience for us, especially with some foul trouble we had," said Braintree head coach Kristen McDonnell. "I think our kids being able to come in and be ready to play at a high level was huge."
Back on Feb. 16, Westford lost to Braintree, 57-29. This was a far different contest, despite the fact that Westford trailed 19-6 after the first quarter and 34-19 at the half. Hackley and Hyslip simply would not let Westford go quietly. They accounted for all of the Grey Ghosts' first-half points. Hyslip had 20 of Westford's first 30 points.
"I'm very proud of us. We played very hard and worked to our strengths," said the Stonehill College-bound Hyslip. "Braintree is a great team, we knew that coming in. I think all of us (six) seniors knew this was our last Westford basketball game, so we all wanted to make it fun and do what we can."
Braintree drilled eight 3-pointers as a team. It proved to be a huge difference-maker, as Westford hit just two. Junior forward Bridget Herlihy made four of those threes on her way to a 14-point night.
"I have to give Herlihy a lot of credit. She bombed us with those four threes," said Westford head coach Russ Coward. "That's my fault, I should've picked up on that. When we switched to a 2-3 zone, I think we got a little spark. I think the one thing we know about our team -- as long as I've been here -- is we always fight. We had three or four moments where we had it at eight points and they came back and made a great play or a great pass and made a bucket. We just couldn't get over that hump.
"When you got two players like Sam and Hannah, you got a chance at anything."
It was 45-34 after three. Westford made a push by starting the fourth on a 7-2 run thanks to a Hackley three, a Hyslip short jumper and two free throws from senior Cathryn Sennott. However, 47-41 is as close as it would get, as Russell had the answers down the stretch with six points in the final three minutes.
"(Braintree) is so well-coached, they are excellent individual players, and the thing that's tough for us is that they play so well as a team," said Coward. "The Russell kid isn't the Gatorade Player of the Year because she scores 25 points per game. It's because she runs the offense and gets kids open shots. I'd be surprised if they're not back here next year."
Since the current system -- four sectionals resulting in one true state champion -- was put in place, Westford had never played for a state title until Saturday.
"We're obviously thrilled," said Coward. "One of the things we tried to stay focused on was enjoying the ride and the games. We are obviously very disappointed right now. But when I wake up tomorrow, I'm going to be thrilled that we made the finals. I'll probably see a couple of those layups that rolled out, but I couldn't be happier. I'll miss coaching them."
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