“That bucket would’ve been the game!”
Those were the words George Mason High School’s girls basketball coach Michael Gilroy exclaimed to the bench in his usual swashbuckling style after streaking senior guard Nicole Bloomgarden overshot her layup with a minute and a half remaining against Buffalo Gap High School. Gilroy’s comment turned out to be prophetic, as the missed shot left the door open for the Bison to rally from a five-point deficit and end the Mustangs’ season with a 36-35 result in the Class 2 state semifinals.
Buffalo Gap needed two shots to reverse their dwindling fortunes and got them both in big ways. The first was a funky runner that fell and was completed at the line for a three-point play. The second was a hot potato-like possession that wound up in the hands of Bison 1st Team All-Region guard Leah Calhoun, who drained a straightaway three with a few seconds remaining to take the lead for good.
“At that point I just wanted a good shot, wanted it to go in and we’ll go from there,” Buffalo Gap head coach Phillip Morgan said. “We got a great look, [Calhoun] hit it and we finished it out.”
Mason’s last-ditch effort was a corner three from senior forward Jenna Short that clanged off the front of the rim to end their run for good.
Prior to the frenzied final two minutes, the Mustangs were beginning to jive throughout the fourth quarter.
Mason hit a three to knot up the score at 24 apiece the start of the quarter and then Bloomgarden took a missed Bison three-ball coast-to-coast for a quick two. Buffalo Gap knocked down a two but Bloomgarden hustled to recover a missed three from junior guard Maddie Lacroix and drove the lane once more to put the Mustangs back up 28-26.
A short jumper from the Bison to tie was again answered, this time by an elbow trey from senior guard Elizabeth Dodge.
Mason then went on a 4-1 run, all powered by Bloomgarden — who scored eight of her 12 points in the fourth quarter — though they struggled to get clean looks at the basket after the missed layup on Bloomgarden’s fast break and laid the foundation for their loss.
“We were literally one layup away. That was the play,” Gilroy said. “We were going to hit [sophomore forward Daria Douglas] with an inbound pass, [Bloomgarden] was going to break up the side and [Douglas] was going hit her, she was gonna make the layup and game over. She was just going too fast and didn’t realize how open she was.”
For what it’s worth, Mason was on the wrong end of a controversial call at a critical juncture.
A perceived double dribble on the Mustangs’ possession sandwiched between Buffalo Gap’s three-point play and go ahead three-pointer drew some ire from the Falls Church natives on the court and in the stands. Mason burned roughly 20 seconds avoiding the Bisons’ traps and searching for a shot along the perimeter when Bloomgarden drove right and had her off hand knocked into the ball mid dribble. The swipe by Buffalo Gap’s defender caused Bloomgarden to inadvertently use both hands to regain control of the ball and gave the appearance of a double dribble to the nearby referee.
“We just wanted to do ‘Through,’ which is just passing and cutting over and over to stall because we had time and we were up. But obviously I got a bad call on the double dribble and it went the other way,” Bloomgarden said, who confirmed that her arm was knocked into the ball.
It was a missed call at the worst possible time for Mason and, unfortunately, it was a decisive break in a big game. However, those errors in judgment are expected and the Mustangs made no excuses about not being able to finish the job on their own terms with Bloomgarden’s layup a few possessions earlier.
The loss signaled the end of a strong three-year run for Mason’s basketball team that saw them improve each season. They went from being upset in a regional home opener against Page County High School two years ago because they couldn’t hit layups or free throws down the stretch to a state quarterfinal berth a year later and a state semifinal berth this season. Though the reality is only one team’s season ends the way they want it to once the state tournament begins.
In total, Mason won 59 games over the three-year period and earned three consecutive Bull Run District titles to go with two second place finishes in the Region. Progress like that is why Bloomgarden is proud of the strides the Mustangs made. And underclassmen holdovers from this year such as Lacroix and Douglas ensure that Mason will have a fighter’s chance come next season. Still, the wound of the loss will be fresh for a while longer.
“It was our game. We had them,” Gilroy added. “I’ve been on the good side of it, I’ve been on the bad side of it. To be one play away from the state championship when we had it is rough. That’s one that doesn’t leave, that’s one you just live with.”
A low-scoring affair from the jump, both teams struggled to find a shooting groove in the opening three quarters.
Mason was able to get the better of Buffalo Gap by the end of the first quarter with an 11-7 lead thanks to the Bison’s sluggish start, but Buffalo Gap turned the tables in the second quarter and took an 18-15 lead into halftime after Calhoun assisted on a bucket preceded by a deep three she knocked down the possession before.
Bloomgarden believed that Mason came out slow against Buffalo Gap, and referenced her own play throughout the first half as evidence. It was similar to how the Region B final two weeks ago unfolded at Spotswood High School, where Mason’s pacing was inconsistent on their way to a 45-42 loss.
The Mustangs matched the Bison throughout the third quarter when it came to scoring, with both teams adding six more points to their tally. But Mason turned it on in the opening possession of the fourth with the early three-pointer in front of their bench to set up a competitive ending.