WORCESTER -- Ayer Shirley opened up Tuesday's Division 4 Central Mass. semifinal on a 28-7 run, and it never looked back. The Lady Panthers defeated Hopedale, 47-27, in their first Central Mass. title game berth in over 30 years at Clark University's Kneller Center .
"This was our first semifinal in over 30 years," Ayer Shirley head coach Pete Page said. "I honestly don't know the last time we won Districts -- It was probably before my time. We typically have to run into Quaboag. Coming down a division certainly helped us as a small school."
Tuesday's win marks the eighth win in a row for the Lady Panthers, and it will face Millis in the Division 4 Central Mass. Title game on Thursday evening. Millis was a 49-27 victor over West Boylston in the first game.
The Lady Panthers were four-of-five from three-point range in the first half. Ayer Shirley junior sharp-shooter Tina Babcock buried the first three off the game off a bounce pass from sophomore point guard Hailie Young. Next, it was junior Olivia Warilla who drained a three from the top of the key to put the Lady Panthers back out in front, 6-4, following a basket by Hopedale's Lea Hyland. Ayer Shirley capped off the first quarter on a 10-2 run.
Ayer Shirley's smothering defense caused nine first-half turnovers by the Blue Raiders.
"In between the first and second quarter, we went over seven minutes without giving up a basket," Page said. "Having fresh legs in the beginning was huge for us. We were four-of-five from three-point range in the first half -- that opened them up and forced them to try and guard us outside. We were a little bigger than them, but they boxed out well and hit the boards really nice. This court is longer than we are used to, and we thought if we pushed the ball, we would have a decided advantage over them (Hopedale.)"
Ayer Shirley took a 28-13 lead into half-time following a three-pointer from the right-corner by Babcock. The Lady Panthers turned up the dial defensively in the second half.
Senior captain Melissa Belanger helped spur the Lady Panthers decisive push in the third quarter. Belanger continued to battle on the glass in the third quarter to get to the free-throw line, where she was five-of-six. Belanger had a game-high nine points and five rebounds in the win.
Ayer Shirley allowed just five points in the third quarter and rapidly stretched its lead to 41-18, following a pair of made free-throws by junior Kayla Timmins.
Page emptied his bench midway through the fourth quarter with the game well in hand. The Lady Panthers out-rebounded Hopedale, 32-25. Senior Gabby Hebert led Ayer Shirley with seven rebounds and two blocks.
Timmins, who had eight points and five rebounds had a hard time putting making it to districts into words.
"It feels pretty to get the win for the seniors," Timmins said. "I am just speechless -- it is so awesome. The fact that we get to play Millis is pretty cool, but I would've rather played West Boylston because we didn't beat them during the regular season. I think we have a good chance if we play hard and our usual game. I am getting a little more playing time and looking for the boards more. I am trying to get my put-backs and free-throw shots -- that's been really helpful."
Page, who is in his third-season, is not surprised that his team is playing for the Division 4 CMass. crown.
"Day in and day out, we have gotten great effort from everybody," he said. "It is just a fun group of girls, who really get at it. They really enjoy each other, and they want to keep the season going as long as they can."
For a full-recap on Thursday's Division 4 Central Mass. District Championship game, visit our website: nashobapublishing.com/sports.