St. Thomas More girls nip Knights 42-40 to advance in state tournament

St. Thomas More’s Olivia Lynch pulls down a rebound against Sussex Central’s Baleigh Lambert in the first quarter at St. Thomas More on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

MAGNOLIA — For St. Thomas More, the final six minutes lasted an eternity,

For Sussex Central, on the other hand, the final buzzer sounded way too soon.

And when the dust finally settled after an agonizing fourth quarter, it was the fifth-seeded Ravens who somehow came away with a 42-40 victory over the No. 21 Golden Knights in the second round of the DIAA girls’ basketball state tournament on Friday evening.

St. Thomas More’s Jessica Simmons reaches for a rebound over Sussex Central defenders under the boards in the second quarter at St. Thomas More on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

St. Thomas More (15-4) earned the program’s second trip to the state quarterfinals in three years despite scoring just two points in the final eight minutes.

The Ravens will face fourth-seeded Hodgson — a team they beat early in the season — on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Carpenter Center. St. Thomas More is the only downstate squad to reach the quarterfinals.

There was definitely a sigh of relief for the Ravens after watching Central (10-12) tally the final nine points of the contest.

“It took so long, it took so long,” senior guard DahNaija Barnes said with a smile about the last few minutes. “The last couple possessions was just about ‘Get a stop on defense.’ And when we got the ball on offense, just hold it as long as we could.

“It was a great feeling,” she said about hearing the final horn.

Friday’s game marked the fifth time the two teams have played in just the last two seasons. St. Thomas More has now won three of those meetings while avenging a loss to Central in the first round of last year’s tourney.

“Sussex Central played an amazing game,” said Ravens’ coach Crystal Gordon. “This has always been a game where we go back and forth. So I never was comfortable because I know how we play against each other. I was just trying to keep them focused.”

The Knights closed within 42-40 when Tameeyah Bowden scored off an offensive rebound with 25 seconds remaining.

St. Thomas More’s DahNaija Barnes gets fouled by Sussex Central’s Raeonna Stratton in the first quarter at St. Thomas More on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Central then had a chance to tie the game after the Ravens missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation. But a close-range shot with 11 seconds on the clock only hit the side of the rim.

The Knights did get one last possession after St. Thomas More missed the front end of a one-and-one for the third time in the final 49 seconds. With only 3.6 seconds remaining and three-quarters of the court to go, however, Central couldn’t get off a shot before the horn sounded.

“We just couldn’t finish,” said Golden Knights’ coach Ron Dukes. “We couldn’t make some shots there at the end. They wouldn’t just fall in.

“We kept fighting. I loved the way they were communicating with one another. They were giving themselves an opportunity to win the ballgame. That’s all you can ask for.”

It’s been a strange few weeks for the Ravens. This was only their second game since Feb. 6 after a couple teams forfeited games to them.

But that didn’t stop St. Thomas More from storming out to an 11-0 lead to start the game. It was 19-4 when Aniah Patterson completed a three-point play with 1:12 still left in the first quarter.

Even though the Knights got back within 30-21 by halftime, the Ravens still seemed in control. They led 36-21 in the third quarter and 42-31 on Sophia Stafford’s layup with 6:24 left in the game.

But those also happened to be St. Thomas More’s final points of the game.

Sussex Central’s Azayah Garrison shoots against St. Thomas More defenders in the first quarter at St. Thomas More on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“In the second half, we’ve had struggles sometimes in getting to the basket,” said Gordon. “It’s a matter of focus, maturity and confidence. I think sometimes fatigue maybe sets in and it dictates our decisions. But we’re learning to work through that.”

The Ravens, who have only nine players on their roster, got double-digit scoring from Jessica Simmons (12 points), Patterson (11) and Olivia Lynch (10). Lynch, a freshman, scored seven of St. Thomas More’s first 11 points.

Azayah Garrison and Bowden netted 10 points apiece for Central.

After getting stopped short of the quarterfinals a year ago, the veteran Raven players are excited to be headed back to the Carpenter Center in Newark.

“It is very special,” said Gordon. “We’re such a family school. So to see everybody in the stands cheering, it’s amazing.”

“It motivated all of us,” said Barnes. “We were determined to get back to ‘The Bob’ this year. And that’s where we’re going.

“It means a lot to this school because we don’t have a lot of teams. With our boys losing in the first round, we just wanted to go as far as we could for them.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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