By Christopher Smith
WORCESTER — Take your time machine back about a month ago and you’ll find a Central Catholic team that looked dead in the water.
On Feb. 18, the Raiders lost by 10 points to Division 3 Pentucket to end the regular season with a rather unimpressive 16-5 record for a team that many thought would be dominant when the year started.
Now, hop back in that time machine of yours and travel to yesterday. You’ll find the Raiders celebrating a 53-48 victory over Holy Name in the Division 1 state title game at the DCU Center.
Wow, what a difference 26 days can make!
These girls said they believed in themselves all along despite the five speed bumps.
The Raiders — led by Stonehill-bound star Casey McLaughlin — stepped their game up a whole other level this postseason, hustling for basketballs, rebounding, fighting for jump balls and willing themselves to victory.
This team refused to lose.
A perfect example came in the second quarter yesterday when Holy Name was storming back after being down 22-8.
With Central’s lead narrowed to 28-22 with less than 10 seconds left before halftime, 5-foot-2 Raiders guard Alex Nagri stole the basketball — purely out of hustle — and passed ahead to forward Amanda Williams who was fouled while scoring a lay-up.
Williams converted her foul shot to cap off the three-point play, which gave Central a 31-22 halftime lead and took some wind out of Holy Name’s sail.
“She’s as feisty as they come,” Central coach Sue Downer said about Nagri. “I think she kind of epitomizes what Central Catholic basketball is all about — that nitty, gritty, get-in-there, be tough, be physical (style).”
Yes, that is exactly the type of style Central used to win this championship, starting in the Division 1 North quarterfinals against Woburn.
McLaughlin was front and center the entire ride. It’s quite possible that nobody in the state hustled more than her over the past two weeks.
McLaughlin finished yesterday with a game-high 27 points. She looked up to the stands right after the final second ticked off the clock.
“The first person I looked to was my mom (Chris),” McLaughlin said. “I always look up at her throughout the game. She is my motivator. She has pushed me through every win. And then I looked at my coaches and after that, at my team. I’m just at a loss for words. This is just the ideal senior season. I obviously wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I’m so proud of my team and where we’ve gotten. It’s a great sendoff.”
Holy Name has a tremendous defensive team, holding its opponents to an average of 36.1 points per game this season entering yesterday.
So for Central to score 17 points in the first quarter alone and lead 17-8 entering the second period was the difference in the game.
Central’s defense was better yesterday, holding Providence-bound forward Brianna Frias to six points and star point guard Aryauna Perez to 12 points.
“We knew going in that Frias and Perez ran their team and we had to stop the pick-and-rolls,” Nagri said. “I think we did a very good job on hedging and recovering on the picks. And I think our defense just stopped them. They’re a very good team and our defense had to be on par (with theirs) to win that game.”
Nagri described the past couple of weeks — from winning the Division 1 North title at the Tsongas Center to winning the Division 1 semifinal at the TD Garden — as remarkable.
“And to even be in this game was amazing,” Nagri said. “But the feeling when the clock was ticking down and when we won — it’s just indescribable.”
agateHed:Central 53, Holy Name 48
agateText:Division 1 Final
agateText:Central (53): Courtney Walsh 6 1-2 13, Alex Nagri 0 0-0 0, Amadna Williams 4 2-4 10, Caitlin Dell’Orfano 0 1-2 1, Darion Summers 0 2-3 2, Casey McLaughlin 13 1-3 27. Totals 23 7-14 53
agateText:Holy Name (48): Gabrielle Guenther 4 1-2 11, Aryauna Perez 5 2-5 12, Carolyn Trotter 0-0-0, Brianna Frais 3 0-2 6, Ama Biney 3 5-7 11, Malissa Saad 3 2-2 8, Megan Thornton 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 10-18 48
agateText:3-pointers: CC — none HN — Guenther 2
agateText:Central Catholic (22-5): 17 14 11 11 — 53
agateText:Holy Name (23-3): 8 14 14 12 — 48