Panthers edge Spartans to defend Division II title
Another solid defensive effort propelled the Johnston Lady Panther basketball team to its second consecutive Division II championship on Saturday afternoon at Rhode Island College, as the Panthers avenged their only league loss of the season with a 39-34 victory over Scituate. It was the Panthers’ 15th win in a row since that 67-50 loss at the hands of the Lady Spartans in early January, and Johnston has now compiled a 41-1 Division II record over the past two seasons.
“Our defense held Scituate to 34 points tonight opposed to the 67 they put up against us earlier in the year,” said Johnston head coach Chris Corsinetti. “Our defense was the key in this game with Bianca Robbins anchoring the defense. Scituate did not get many good looks at the basket. I was a little afraid of the matchup with Madison Medury. She is fast.”
The top-seeded Panthers advanced to the D-II finals with a win over Juanita Sanchez in the semifinals, while the second-seeded Spartans beat Wheeler in their semifinal game.
Scituate scored seconds into the game off the opening tip with a Samantha Oster layup, but its small lead did not last long.
Johnston’s Jordan Moretti nailed a 3-pointer to give her team a 14-13 lead – a lead the Panthers would never relinquish.
Scituate closed the gap to 19-17 with a Leah Bessette basket right before the half ended.
“We gave up a bad possession at tip off and a bad possession at the end of the first half,” Corsinetti said. “Those were four points I thought we gave them in addition to some layups we missed.”
The Panthers, as they have done all season, began to pull away in the second half with Moretti leading the way. The senior co-captain’s 3 made it a 27-19 game, and her two free throws gave Johnston its largest lead at 29-19. Cleasia Peoples hit two big three-point shots that maintained the Panthers’ lead of 10 points, 37-27.
“Cleasia Peoples has ice in her veins,” Corsinetti said. “She had some big shots for us last year in the state championship tournament.”
The Spartans went on a 7-0 run that cut the lead to 37-34 with 24 seconds left in regulation with a Bessette bucket, but Johnston’s Megan Philbrick’s two rebounds off two Moretti free throw misses maintained possession for the Panthers. Moretti would later seal the game with two clutch free throws, making it a two-possession game with only seconds left on the clock.
“Jordan Moretti is our catalyst, she makes us go,” Corsinetti said. “Jordan is our heart and soul. She makes me want to coach harder and she makes everyone want to play harder. No one wants to let Jordan down. She went down with an injury earlier in the year and these kids rallied around her and played harder. They are all a great bunch of kids.”
“This is amazing,” a jubilant Moretti said. “We had a big target on our backs all year and we showed everybody what we can do. Everyone stepped up tonight. Bianca Robbins played well tonight against Scituate’s point guard. When the ball went in my hands I just shot it and it went in, I just kept doing that. It feels amazing to win a second championship. My teammates had my back all season and we are looking forward to playing in the state tournament.”
Moretti, who scored 21 of her team’s 39 points, dedicated the game to her grandfather who passed away last year.
An emotional Corsinetti spoke about the closeness of the team.
“We have all become a family. They all love each other and I love them and they did not want to let each other down. I was a little nervous because of the last game with Scituate, but they helped settle me down and took away those negative thoughts. They were all loose before the game.”
The Panthers still have work to do. They will be the No. 3 seed in the 16-team state open tournament, which got underway on Wednesday night. Undefeated La Salle will be the No. 1 seed and Moses Brown the second seed in games that will be played at four different venues across the state. Johnston played No. 14 Rogers last night at Ponaganset High School. Results were not available at press time. The Panthers made it to the Final Four at the Ryan Center last season, losing to the eventual champion La Salle. If the Panthers are victorious against Rogers, they will play in the Elite 8 at Rhode Island College this Saturday afternoon.