In a season full of obstacles, Baldwin cleared one more Saturday on the way to claiming its ninth consecutive Nassau County Class AA girls’ basketball championship.
The top-seeded Lady Bruins spotted No. 2 Massapequa seven of the game’s first eight points before scoring 12 straight to gain control late in the opening quarter of a 45-40 victory at Hofstra University.
Senior Katelyn Simpson and sophomore Monique Echols keyed an explosive 24-4 run by scoring eight points apiece and finished with a game-high 13 apiece as Baldwin (21-2) continued its Nassau dominance and advanced to battle Walt Whitman for the Long Island Class AA title next Saturday at 12 p.m. at Farmingdale State College.
“We started slow, but we believed in ourselves and there’s no better feeling,” said Simpson, who had a clutch putback layup with 1:18 remaining to up the Lady Bruins’ lead to 44-38. “We wanted to play fast and also play within ourselves,” she added. “We did a good job of defensive rebounding and pushing the pace and that’s what led to that run in the first half.”
Junior Briana Neary scored 10 of her team-high 12 points, and senior Alexa Cirabisi had all eight of her points in the second half to help Massapequa cut into Baldwin’s 14-point halftime lead. The Chiefs (19-4) twice made it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter.
“Massapequa is a talented team and even though we had a nice lead at halftime, I told the girls to be ready for them to make a push,” Baldwin head coach Tom Catapano said. “Never did we think this would be easy. We had a lot of young players out there today and I thought we were a little tight in the first quarter. We settled down and did a great job after that. I’m tremendously proud of this group.”
Baldwin’s 25-11 halftime cushion was cut to two possessions by late in the third quarter as Massapequa crept within 33-29 thanks to a combined 14 points from Cirabisi and Neary. Echols answered with a trey at the buzzer to put the defending champs ahead by seven heading into the fourth.
“I was feeling confident in warmups and glad I made some shots to help us win,” said Echols, a first-year starter. “We’ve worked so hard since November and I’m so happy for all of my teammates.”
Baldwin had to endure an intense final quarter before it could celebrate. With 4:51 remaining in the fourth, sophomore Paige Grosso’s free throw brought the Chiefs within 36-34 as Catapano’s lineup was altered by a fifth personal foul on sophomore sensation Payton Dulin, who had eight points after pouring in a game-high 14 in the semifinal victory over Freeport.
“It reminded me of last year’s county final when Dally [Moreno] fouled out,” Catapano said. “We went down our best scorer again, but the girls hung tough and found a way.”
Baldwin scored three of the next four baskets after Dulin was relegated to the bench. After Simpson and Massapequa’s late-game spark sophomore Isabella Grosso traded hoops, a pair of Lady Bruins picked the perfect time to get on the scoresheet. Junior Renelle Grannum converted a nifty give-and-go with eighth-grader Chinaya Okogeri, who scored on the ensuing possession for a 42-36 lead.
“Renelle is the perfect example of our entire program,” Catapano said of Grannum, who along with Moreno and Simpson suffered serious injuries last summer. “She’s nowhere near herself yet but she’s out there battling and helping us win.”
Simpson sealed the deal by scoring the final three points.
“Every championship is different and special,” she said. “Celebrating on the court with my teammates is the best.”