By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — Holy Spirit senior forward Sophia Pasquale says winning basketball games is less about talent and more about heart. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard that cliche before. There’s a reason it’s a cliche, after all. But when Pasquale says it, her words come off as completely genuine. She’s not just saying something to a reporter after a game that she heard an NBA player say on SportsCenter. She believes that if she and her teammates just keep fighting for 32 minutes that, in the end, they’ll have a chance to win.
Pasquale and her teammates HAD to have that kind of attitude Saturday morning, as they found themselves down 24-6 in the first half against visiting Absegami, and after the Braves put together a pair of 12-0 runs, the Spartans found themselves trailing 26-12 after a dismal first half. There was no way they could come back from that in just the two 8-minute quarters of the second half.
But Holy Spirit head coach Tim Whitworth has a unique approach to high school girls basketball. In an era of slow-it-down and stall-ball, Whitworth pushes the pace and wants his team to let-er-rip, take as many shots as possible, even his young freshmen. Their fearlessness and willingness to take big shots paid off on Saturday, as freshman Hanna Watson drilled what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 31 seconds left. That gave Holy Spirit a 46-44 lead, and the Spartans hung on in the waning seconds for a 46-45 win — a miraculous comeback after trailing by as many as 18 points early on.
Holy Spirit improved to 6-1 overall and 6-1 in the Cape-Atlantic League North, taking a one-game lead on Absegami (4-1, 4-1).
“Hanna Watson, she’s done it two or three times this year where she’s come in and knocked down big-time shots. For me, it says a lot to trust a freshman in that situation,” Whitworth said. “Between her and (fellow freshman) Kendall Murphy, I trust them and I want them in there at the end of the game. Something good is going to happen, and if it doesn’t, they are going to learn from it. I want them to let it go — that’s my philosophy, shooters shoot and if you’re open, let it fly. And that kid has made big-time shots two or three times already this year as a freshman. I’m really proud of her, and really proud of the whole team. I thought it was a team effort. Even girls who only chipped in a few minutes had some big plays for us.”
“I honestly think it was just a huge team effort. I feel like every single girl contributed in this game —maybe not with points, but with little things like getting rebounds, taking good shots. It was an overall team effort,” said Pasquale, who led the way for the Spartans with 15 points, including 13 in the second half. “I hugged (Watson) so hard after the game. That shot was amazing, and that’s what I was talking about with the little things and people coming in and getting baskets here and there. This win says we have heart. We’ll do anything we can to claw our way back into a game, and I feel like it comes down to having it mentally, and we do, as a team. It’s not just about talent, it’s about what you have in your head.”
Pasquale nailed a big 3-pointer midway through the third quarter that got Spirit within 10, 28-18, and the Spartans continued to chip away until they trailed just 36-28 headed into the fourth quarter. Kira Murray drove the lane to start the fourth quarter and cut the deficit to 36-30, then moments later she scored again off a steal to shave the Braves’ lead all the way down to 36-32.
That spurt to start the fourth quarter proved to be the turning point, as Spirit eventually tied the game at 37 with 4:45 to go on a huge 3-pointer from Watson. Those two threes in the fourth quarter were her only field goals of the game, as she finished with eight points.
“It was a team game. We just had to have a good mindset, nobody was thinking negatively and that’s how we came back,” said Francesca Florio, Spirit’s only other senior aside from Pasquale. “Coach told us to keep fighting, don’t give up, and don’t dwell on the negatives. In the beginning of the fourth quarter is when we really started striking back. This win leaves me speechless.”
“That was huge,” Whitworth said of Murray’s buckets to start the fourth quarter. “It was a lot of points to be down, but we like to play fast and get a lot of possessions. For us, we had the mindset that let’s just keep chipping away and all of a sudden it was a game. I was expecting (Absegami) to slow it down but I think we did a really nice job of forcing them not to slow it down. We were really making them scramble and making them get a little nervous with the ball.”
Gami wasn’t done yet, however, as Gianna Baldino drained a three to put the Braves up, 42-40, answering Pasquale’s 3-pointer that had given Spirit a momentary 40-39 lead. But with 2:08 remaining, Pasquale again came through, hitting another 3-pointer that put Spirit ahead, 43-42. The see-saw battle in the final two minutes continued, as Jackie Fortis converted a layup with 1:45 left to put the Braves ahead, 44-43, but Watson’s three with 31 seconds left was the backbreaker. Gami cut it to 46-45 with a free throw from Gelasia Nurse with 9.4 seconds remaining, but Holy Spirit was able to dribble out the clock before Absegami could send the Spartans to the line again.
Pasquale credited her second-year coach with keeping the Spartans in the game mentally when they had such a big mountain to climb to get back into it.
“He kept us up, as he always does. Coach Tim is a positive guy and he kept saying it doesn’t matter how many we’re down by, we can still come back and win this game. His positivity always carries over into our play — him telling us ‘go out and win this game, it doesn’t matter how many we’re down by’ really got into our heads and helped us come through in this game,” she said. “With the way our team plays, which is really fast and that’s not always how other teams like to play — because we’re such a fast-playing team, I felt like that helped us get back into the game.”
“Look, give Absegami a lot of credit, they came out and started really strong and we were on our heels to start the game. At halftime, we just felt like if we try to push the pace more and make it our style, our game, then we felt like we had a fighting chance. We kind of broke it down into minutes — win the first couple minutes (of the second half) and we’ll see what happens from there,” Whitworth added. “I think Absegami is the best team we’ve played this year so far. They are very talented and we have a lot of respect for them. For us to come and win, it will hopefully get us noticed. We’re going to continue to build and just put our heads down and keep doing what we do. It’s a process anytime you take over a program and Year One we had some success. I loved the seniors we had (last year) who laid the foundation and handed it over to this group here. We have a great group of kids, and they’re just thrilled to playing this year, honestly. Days like this, these are memories you’ll remember for a while.”
Senior Haleigh Schafer led the way for Absegami with 16 points while Nurse and Baldino each contributed 10. For Holy Spirit, Murray matched Pasquale with 15 points while Angelina Bell, Savannah Keaser and Cecelia Bell all contributed points off the bench.
What’s next: Absegami hosts Egg Harbor Township on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Holy Spirit travels to Pleasantville on Thursday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays