After capturing the Liberty District Championship for the second time in two years the George C. Marshall High School girls varsity basketball team is returning to the Northern Region semifinals — but it was not easy.
In a game that saw three ties and 10 lead changes in the second half, the Lady Statesmen hit 13 of their final 16 free throws to finally pull away and defeat the persistent and talented Spartans of West Springfield, 52-43 Tuesday night. When the final buzzer finally sounded, Marshall Head Coach Noel Klippenstein would call the contest one of the three most exciting games ever in her tenure at Marshall.
Liberty District Player of the Year Nicole Harrison scored 18 points for Marshall (23-4), but struggled to put points on the board early, as did her teammates. The Statesmen scored just five points in a sloppy first quarter that saw the Spartans pull ahead to a 13-5 lead. Harrison finished the first half with six points, but Marshall rallied to tie the score at 23 thanks in large part to the spark provided by Ali Johnson. Johnson (6-for-6 from the free throw line in the game) paced Marshall in the opening 16 minutes with eight points, including six of the team’s first nine. With Johnson complementing Harrison, Laura Burch and senior Maya Al-Shingieti, Marshall used a 7-0 run to end the half and knot the score at 23 heading into the intermission.
“She [Johnson] was incredible,” Klippenstein said after the game. “We talked last game about how the bench comes onto the floor to lift up the players and she did that. She played stronger than we had ever seen her.”
Just before halftime, the Spartans took a hard blow when senior low post player Caroline Nicholson was forced out of the game with a low ankle sprain. She returned to the bench after halftime on crutches and would not return to the court.
At the start of the third, Marshall opened up a four-point lead it would maintain for most of the quarter. A layup by Lauren Massie and a baseline jump shot by Sam Landers tied the game at 33 with 2:51 remaining in the quarter.
With momentum on their side, the Spartans had a chance to open the game up, but missed five of their next six free throws over a span of two minutes to let Marshall off the hook. Trailing by only one instead of a potential six points, Marshall eventually retook the lead at the third-quarter buzzer on a baseline jumper by Burch.
That set the stage for a pulse-pounding final quarter that left the outcome well in doubt until the final minute of the game. The lead changed hands five times between the 5:30 and 2:05 mark, when Harrison put the Statesmen up for good with a pair of free throws to give Marshall a 44-43 edge. Eight more made free throws by Marshall accounted for the final margin after a string of unintentional-intentional fouls and a technical foul assessed against Bill Gibson repeatedly put the Statesmen on the line.
“We ask them to make so many free throws in a row before they can leave practice,” Klippenstein said regarding her team’s performance from the line.
Harrison would lead Marshall with 18 points, five steals and six assists, while Burch added 11 points. Johnson finished her night with 10 points, while Al-Shingieti chipped in with eight. Massie led the Spartans with 11 points.
The win was the second in two days for Marshall, the top seed from the Liberty District, after they beat Chantilly 58-44 on Monday night. Harrison led the way with 16 points, while Al-Shingieti also finished in double-digits with 13.
Last Saturday, Marshall won the Liberty District Championship by besting rival Madison 56-40 in the finals held at South Lakes High School. Marshall hit three three-pointers to tie the game in the third quarter keyed by a bank shot by Angela Asta. Madison’s Mary Grace Jay held Al-Shingieti to just six points, but the Warhawks could not stop KT Mesich who finished with 14 points. The Lady Statesmen suit up again on Thursday for a game against Oakton at George Mason University’s Patriot Center. The game tips off at 8 p.m.