D2 South Girls: Scituate 55, Natick 38

BOSTON -- Kelly Martin retired to bed early Friday night, knowing she had a chance Saturday to finish converting the worst feeling of her athletic life into her most glowing accomplishment.

Martin, one of Scituate’s stars, remembered last year’s crushing defeat to Hopkinton at the buzzer of the Division 2 South sectional finals. She thought about the TD Garden, her basketball holy grail, where the Lady Sailors would play next if they could oust Natick Saturday in this year’s finals.

Scituate was closing in on a perfect season, 23-0 entering Saturday, yet Martin felt last year’s pain was only worth it if the Lady Sailors could cement a sectional title.

Morning didn’t arrive as quickly as it normally does.

“I woke up at 4 a.m. and I kept waking up every hour until our team breakfast,” Martin said.

But she can catch up on lost sleep Saturday night, perhaps after a night of deserved celebration. She and her teammates are headed to the TD Garden on Tuesday for the Division 2 state semifinals after overcoming Natick 55-38 at UMass Boston’s Clark Athletic Center on Saturday night.

“I remember going in the locker room after last year’s loss and telling them, ‘If you don’t like this taste, remember it,” said Scituate coach Brian Buckley. “Remember it. You never want this taste again.”

Megan Otto, Scituate’s second-leading scorer, recalled the bitter taste. She used it to motivate her all season long, and when Scituate fell behind 23-13 midway through the second quarter on Saturday, Otto even turned to last season as a crutch.

“If you saw our game last year, it didn’t seem nearly as bad," Otto said. "I actually wasn’t scared at all, because of last year and because I know we’re a second-half team."

Otto, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, had seven points in the next four minutes as Scituate climbed within 25-22 by halftime.

The Lady Sailors could have been nervous in the locker room. They had more 50-point wins (three) than single-digit wins (two) while running up a 23-0 record this season. The tight score – never mind a halftime deficit – wasn’t the most familiar territory. Plus, Natick’s Lexi Gifford had already netted 18 points and the Red and Blue clearly wouldn’t be shoved aside easily.

“And last year’s loss was on this same court,” Buckley pointed out.

But with so much reason to fear, Scituate’s locker room at halftime resonated with nothing but confidence.

“There was no yelling. We weren’t down at all. We were screaming, celebrating. We knew we could come back and get it, and just really carried it onto the court,” Otto explained.

Shannon Brady, who paced the Lady Sailors with 18 points while adding seven rebounds, got hot to begin the second half, and the hard-nosed Scituate press began to force turnovers and rushed shots, turning the three-point halftime disadvantage into a 43-32 lead after three.

Brady poured in eight points during the third quarter. So did Kelly, who was on her way to a 12-point night. And Scituate finally began to slow down Gifford, who scored only three of her 21 points after intermission.

At a frantic pace, Scituate remained calm and poised. This was a crew forged by last year’s loss. A strong wave may cause damage, but it’s the current's force that leaves behind smooth shells.

And when redemption had finally been achieved, Otto returned to her place of motivation. Even in triumph, last year’s crushing defeat came to her. But now, the sting had turned into thanks.

“Last year’s loss helped us,” Otto said. “It’s going to sound weird, but I told Kelly after the game, I actually think last year’s loss was worth the win this year. I think there’s a lot to be said for getting down and working your way back up again to the place where you want to be.”

A heartfelt Goodbye: With less than a minute remaining, Natick coach Dan Hinnenkamp sent in substitutes to replace Gifford and two teammates.

The score was 54-38 by then. But that did not stop the Natick crowd, witnessing the school’s first berth in the girl’s sectional finals, from rising to its feet for a collective standing ovation.

Chants of "M-V-P" rained down on Gifford as she walked off the court.

“Lexi’s an unbelievable athlete," Hinnenkamp said. "She’s a 1,000-point scorer for us. She’s been our point guard for four years. She wanted this game more than anything, so she came out and gave it her all, and I think that was evident."

Gifford scored 18 of Natick’s 25 points in the first half, scorching the Scituate defense for four triples in the first 16 minutes.

But with Scituate more focused on denying her opportunities, Gifford slowed down in the second half, mustering just three points.

“They’re undefeated for a reason. They came out and their defense was strong. We had a tough time scoring – it was all the defense, I think,” she said.

If there is a positive to the loss for Gifford, it’s that she can begin hanging out with her old friends again.

“This team is so tight. We’re like a family. We just played our hearts out every game. Of all my teams I’ve ever played for, this is the most fun one. We’re just all friends. We go out before practice, every practice, team dinners. We don’t have any other friends during the basketball season,” she said.

Quick and unselfish: Two characteristics stand out when watching Scituate more than any others: The Lady Sailors move the ball like they’re playing catch with a flaming coal, and they play at an abnormally quick pace.

The game’s final field goal stood as a symbol of Scituate’s playing style. Martin caught an outlet pass on the left wing, took one dribble and threw a perfect assist to Brady, who, even as a 5-foot-8 center, had beaten all her opponents down court for the open layup.

“Especially when we only play eight kids for the most part, our pace is incredible," Buckley said. "Our practices are super. That’s how we practice every day. We said that’s going to be the difference down the road. And today, it really showed. On a big court, to be able to run like that."

“We run a drill that incorporates that type of passing every single day in practice, and when you see it on the floor, it’s sweet,” he added. “Of course, you have to have the right players passing it and catching it, too.”

The Lady Sailors certainly had the right players, who will look to extend their bid at perfection at the TD Garden on Tuesday.

To say they’re excited about playing at the home of the Boston Celtics would be an understatement.

“I’ve wanted to play at the Garden since I first started playing basketball,” said Martin. “Once I knew I even had the opportunity to go there, that’s all I’ve wanted. And coming off last year’s loss to Hopkinton – I knew we could come back. I knew we had the chance, so there’s no way I was going to give up even until the last whistle.”