By Brian Paglia
Out of necessity, the Lovejoy girls basketball team had but only two choices as Riverdale set to inbounds the ball with a one-point lead and 24 seconds left in overtime. Best case scenario: Tough pressure defense would flummox the Lady Raiders and lead to a steal. Worst case scenario: The Lady Wildcats would have to foul until they reached the bonus, which was still five fouls away. The odds seemed against Lovejoy.
Three times Riverdale inbounded the ball with relative ease. Each time Lovejoy fouled, taking precious seconds off the clock and sending Riverdale right back to the same spot to inbounds yet again.
The monotony was becoming painful for Lovejoy coach Eric Habelt.
"The first few we were just in that, 'OK, we're going to foul' mode," Habelt said. "I was yelling out to them, 'Don't forget, go for the ball first.'"
On the fourth inbounds, Lovejoy sophomore Navilla Paul harassed Riverdale senior guard Tiayra Green, forcing a wild pass that tipped off her fingers for Paul to take. Finally, Lovejoy had its steal, and Paul made a layup just before the buzzer to give Lovejoy a 44-43 overtime victory over Riverdale in a Region 4-AAAAA game Tuesday night.
"I was just thinking that coach told us to make sure to go for the ball," said Paul, who finished with nine points. "I knew I was wide open, so I just tried to take my time and make the layup. And when I made it, it was just a release of emotion when the crowd went wild. It was fun. It was a sweet victory."
The game evolved in a similiar fashion to when these two teams met early in December. Riverdale seized control in overtime for a 55-49 victory that time, a surprising outcome considering that Lovejoy was mired in a dismal start to the season.
But Lovejoy has become a different team since then. After a 55-43 loss to Chapel Hill on Dec. 18, its last game before the holiday tournament season, Lovejoy has gone 7-2 and revitalized its postseason outlook. The Lady Wildcats are over .500 for the first time this season at 9-8 overall and 5-5 in the region, carrying a different perspective as the region tournament approaches.
"We're happy that we're improving," Paul said. "We're playing well as a team, and we didn't have that team aspect earlier in the season."
"We're a relatively young team and we started off a little slower than we'd like," Habelt said. "But I told the girls, 'All you can do is just keep persevering.' They've continue to work hard all the way through."
Indeed, it took much work to fight back from a 23-13 deficit early in the second quarter, but when Kendra Boehning (nine points) hit a transition layup in the third quarter, Lovejoy erased Riverdale's lead and tied the game at 29.
It took much work to deal with Riverdale Division I signees Janel Osbourne (15 points) and Green (11 points), but Lovejoy's zone defense denied Riverdale easy access to the basket and forced myriad of turnovers.
"We had trouble with their zone. We couldn't get the ball inside the way we wanted to," Riverdale coach Tony Brinson said. "They did a very good job of fronting our post players."
Lovejoy boys 77, Riverdale 56
Cameron Solomon scored a game-high 26 points and the Wildcats won their fourth straight Region 4-AAAAA game Tuesday night to hold on to second-place in the region standings.
Leroy Merritt and C.J. Forest each added 10 points for Lovejoy (9-8, 8-3), which earned a season sweep of the Raiders.
Sateri Mercer led Riverdale (6-10, 3-6) with 16 points.