Arts & Entertainment

Mustangs’ Run Ends in Semis, Buffaloes Soldier On to Title

MASON HIGH'S BAILEY WALTON goes up for a shot in the VHSL State Tournament semifinal game against Floyd County. (Photo: Elizabeth Morrison)Mason High Girls Rally, But Fall Just Short in State Tourney

When the final buzzer sounded in last Friday’s game at the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, the metaphorical clock struck midnight on the Cinderella that was the George Mason High School girls basketball team and no Prince Charming was waiting to return their lost glass slipper at the end of the night.

The Region B champion Mustangs withstood a barrage of Floyd County three-pointers throughout the second half, each time answering with their own attack to continuously cut the lead. In the end, however, it was the Buffaloes out of Region C who stood tall, winning 66-62 in the Single A, Division 2 semifinals.

With 20 seconds left and her team up by four, Floyd junior guard Brittany Avancini stole an errant pass in the open court and burst down the middle for a wide-open layup, sealing the victory for the Buffaloes. It turned out to be just that kind of night for Floyd, who capitalized on nearly every Mason turnover.

Utilizing a stifling full-court press defense, as well as a half-court zone designed to double team the ballhandler at every opportunity, Floyd forced 28 turnovers, turning them into 25 points.

For a while though, it seemed as though destiny was on Mason’s side, that the clock would never reach midnight and signal the end of the Mustangs' miraculous run.

Upsets were nothing new for the Mustangs, who downed defending state champion Clarke County as well as Strasburg, the AP’s number one team in the state. After last week’s trouncing of Middlesex, Mason reached the state final four for the first time since 1998.

Going up against the quick and experienced Floyd County — the Buffaloes have been to the state tournament each of the last three years, including a loss in last year’s final to Clarke County — proved to be too much for coach Bill Broderick’s squad, who saw every final charge they made in the fourth quarter promptly answered by the red-hot shooting Buffalos.

Within the final three minutes, Mason drew within two points of reaching the state finals, but each time, Floyd answered with a bomb from beyond the arc. Sophomore Chantal Thomas, in what was one of her best games of the entire season, converted a three-point play on the baseline, pulling her squad within two. However, that play was sandwiched between two three-pointers for the Buffaloes.

Avancini’s steal, though, was the ultimate dagger for the contest. A put-back by Mason sophomore Nicole Mitchell with one second left cut the final margin to four.

Mitchell and Thomas nearly single-handedly kept the Mustangs in the game on the offensive end. Junior Kim Kenny and Meredith Hamme, who had dominated throughout the Region B tournament, were held to a combined 14 points.

Using her trademark aggressiveness and an almost innate ability to snatch rebounds, Mitchell had 18 points — the sophomore made all eight of her shots from the field, almost all layups — and grabbed 14 rebounds. Thomas, likewise, was crucial down the stretch, hitting all four of her free throws to go along with 16 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals.

Even though they did not put up the same numbers that had garnered the Mustangs wins earlier in the season, Hamme and Kenny still made their presence known at VCU, chipping in eight and six points, respectively. Hamme had six assists and three steals, while Kenny tacked on nine rebounds and two assists.

Senior Bailey Walton, who torched Middlesex a week earlier with three three-pointers, added nine points and five rebounds. All in all, the scoring was fairly balanced for the Mustangs, who played 10 deep, keeping their subs fresh to counter Floyd’s press.

The scoring for the Buffalos, however, was anything but well-distributed, but it proved not to matter in the slightest. Avancini had 31 points, hitting just over 50 percent of her shots from the field. The junior had an up and down night, though, scoring 11 in the first period, zero in the second, but came out of the locker room on fire, tacking on 20 in the second half. The next leading scorer for Floyd County was Carmen Bolt with nine.

Mason bested Floyd County in nearly every single offensive category, including field goal percentage (54.5 to 40.4), three-point percentage (37.5 to 30), free throw percentage (78.6 to 60.9), rebounds (34-29) and assists (14-10). However, crucial statistics, including turnovers and steals, went in the favor of the Buffalos, ultimately deciding the final outcome.

Students at George Mason were let out of school with an excused absence on Friday, as parents, peers and teachers were in full force in the transplanted Mustang “Red Zone.”

“We are so thankful to have such a community, and that they got to become a part of our community, the sea of red that came to both VCU and Robinson,” commented Hamme. “They definitely share a big part in our accomplishments.”

When reviewing the season, it is impossible to not mention the word “family” — the word printed on their black warm-up shirts — when describing these girls. Every player on the team bought into the whole aspect of unity early in the season, and it certainly helped carry them to the Siegel Center this weekend.

“Every team I’ve been on has been something special, but this has been my favorite season,” said Hamme, a four-year varsity starter. “It wasn’t because we got to states, but because of what got us to states. We’ve come much further than anyone expected us to. We’ve won things that trophy don’t embody.

“Basketball is not going to be the same, because I’m not going to be playing with these girls. They became my family beyond basketball, and I hope that will lay the groundwork for other Mason teams in the future. We walked out of that gym knowing that we accomplished something great.”

Hamme perhaps best embodied the “never say die” attitude of the squad, as she came back from major knee surgery and a second knee injury in two years to start throughout the miraculous Mason playoff run.

With the loss, the George Mason community bids farewell to the storied careers of the aptly named “Super Eight of ’08,” whose leadership and guidance turned the Mustang “family” into state title contenders.

Hamme, Walton, Annie Zweighaft (three points in the semi-final loss), Olivia Scott (two points), Rachel Kazman, Stephanie Pinch, Hannah Baumgardner and Rebecca Jackson will all graduate in June, but the legacy they have left in the halls of Mason will nonetheless linger for years to come.

Note: Floyd County moved on to the Virginia Single A Division 2 finals on Saturday against Lancaster High School. The Buffalos were victorious over the Region A champion Red Devils, 64-50, making Floyd the fourth state champion in a row to have finished runner-up the previous year.

 

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