Caroline Price had been carrying the scars for more than a year.
Not scars from a nasty fall, cut or car accident, mind you; no, these scars were more mental, psychological even. For athletes, losing a last-second game to a hated archrival leaves long-lasting scars, which is often twice as vivid and painful than any physical mark left on one’s body.
Price, one of six senior headliners on the St. Hubert basketball team, trudged out of Archbishop Ryan’s gym on Jan. 8, 2013, a one-point loser, the byproduct of a backbreaking jumper with 15.6 seconds left that gave the Ragdolls a 48-47 victory. She and her teammates had to wait 13 long months for a shot at redemption, and they promised themselves the result would be different this time around.
Price was indeed correct, but not without a few heart palpitations first. After the second of her two free throws found the bottom of the net with 11.4 seconds left in overtime at the Bambie Dome on Friday night, Price and everyone else could exhale. The Bambies found vindication in the way of a come-from-behind, thrilling 58-53 victory over the Ragdolls on Senior Night.
Finally, the scars were gone.
“I vividly remember how I felt after that game, just the lowest I’ve ever been in my entire life,” said Price after scoring 11 points, one of five Bambies in double figures. “Going into tonight, I knew I never wanted to feel like that again. I was nervous a month ago for this game, and I was shaking all day leading up to it. But I knew there wasn’t anything in me that was going to allow my team to lose.”
The win certainly didn’t come easy, though they never do in a rivalry this fierce. The Ragdolls jumped all over the Bambies early, racing out to a 20-10 lead after one, stunning an overflow, capacity crowd. St. Hubert used a 13-3 run spurt in the second quarter to cut the deficit to one at the break on the strength of a late three-pointer from senior Kelly Riley (team-high 12 points).
The Ragdolls exerted a forceful counterpunch on the defensive end in quarter three, holding St. Hubert to just three points en route to a 43-36 lead. Still, the Bambies never wavered. A Price three cut the Ryan lead to four, then senior Megan Reilly scored six of her 10 points in a row, including the go-ahead driving layup that gave the Bambies their first lead of the game, a 45-44 advantage with 2:55 left. Senior Elizabeth “Biff” Jones nailed a three off a nifty pass from Reilly to go up four, but following a Ragdolls bucket, Ryan junior Danielle Skedzielewski (12 points) ultimately knotted the score at 49 after sinking two free throws with 18.4 seconds left. A frantic final push saw both teams turn the ball over without getting a shot off, so sure enough, this classic would require an extra period.
“It was so nerve-wracking, but we just told ourselves that it wasn’t over until that final buzzer went off,” Reilly said after her team let the Ragdolls creep back in. “It’s the best feeling I’ve had all season, especially since the six of us did it together.”
With the sixth seed and final first-round bye in the Catholic League playoffs at stake, the Bambies buckled down. They scored the first four of overtime before Ryan sophomore Shannon Glenn (game-high 14 points) cut it to one on a three. Jones missed a pair of free throws (after Reilly had just missed a pair herself), again allowing Ryan to hang around. But the Ragdolls never took the lead again, and Jones and Price finally closed it out by sinking four foul shots in a row.
Now, they could breathe.
“As a team, we’ll always remember how special this win made our senior season,” said Jones, who scored 11 points. “Last year, my best friend (Ryan’s Kalene Coffey) made the shot right in my face. I went to St. Martha’s for grade school right next door to Ryan, so I know all of those kids. We just wanted to play them again, and beat them. You always remember the Ryan games, because that’s our rival.”
By virtue of winning this game, the Bambies get some extra rest while Ryan will host either Little Flower or Conwell-Egan in a first-round playoff game on Thursday. In a league that is so top-heavy (Ryan and St. Hubert went a combined 0-10 against the top five), the Bambies will take any competitive advantage they can get going forward.
“We didn’t want to play on Thursday,” said Price, whose mother is a cousin of Ryan head coach Mike McCusker. “We had downfalls at points tonight and during this season, but we never got down on each other mentally. I think we all knew in our heads that no matter what the score was, we didn’t care. We weren’t ending this night with a loss.”
The sold-out crowd certainly added to the atmosphere, which was beyond electric. There wasn’t an empty seat in the building, with spectators resorting to sitting on the floor or standing by the door. And they hung on every single possession. At one point late in the game, the tension was so palpable that the Bambie mascot couldn’t even look, covering her eyes in nervous anticipation.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who came out,” Reilly said. “We wanted a great crowd and we talked it up all week in school, but I don’t know if we expected that.”
Added Jones: “It usually gets like this once a year, and it just makes you want to play so much better for everyone there. It gave us the confidence we needed when we were down. It just makes everything worthwhile.”
St. Hubert coach Brian Kuzmick has been coaching against the Ragdolls for almost a decade, and he knew how badly his seniors (also Maria DeRentz and Gina Cocci) wanted this one.
“It was just so much fun to be a part of a game like that,” he said. “I’m ecstatic for them, they needed a win like this. We haven’t had too many down-to-the-wire wins like this, so I think it brings them together and gives them confidence heading into the playoffs. This is a great way to head into it.”
Regardless of how long the Bambies last in the minefield that is the Catholic League playoffs, this much is clear: the members of this team will remember Feb. 7, 2014, as the night they sent their archrivals home with the scars of a crushing defeat.
“The way you feel after a win like this,” Jones said, “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
“To beat them on our home court on Senior Night for the very last time, it’s just amazing,” Reilly said.
“Now, I have bragging rights,” Price said with a laugh. “The Ryan game is big enough. Senior Night is big enough. When you put them together, there’s no game that will ever be more important. There’s no bigger rival for us, so for all of us to play as collectively well as we did, I’ve never been so proud. It’s never been so worth it until this moment. I’ve never been happier to be a St. Hubert basketball player.” ••