By David Willis and Christopher Smith
WORCESTER — You could almost see the weight lifted from Courtney Walsh’s shoulders early in the first half when she hauled in a long pass and swished her first hoop of the game.
“I hit my first shot off a breakaway and that really relaxed me and calmed some of the nerves,” said Walsh. “That really helped a ton.”
That basket was the start of another golden day for the junior guard known for her clutch play.
Walsh came though again on the biggest stage, scoring 13 points and doing everything asked in a 53-48 Division 1 state title win over Holy Name yesterday.
“We’ve been dreaming of this for the last three years and even before we got to Central,” said Walsh. “I don’t think I have ever had a feeling like this. It is amazing.”
Walsh didn’t leave the court, playing every second of the game and contributing everything from points — including eight in the first half — to defense and handing the ball.
She was the perfect Robin to star Casey McLaughlin’s Batman, taking the heat off the star while directing the attack.
“Courtney ruled the point,” said Amanda Williams. “She always put the ball where it needed to go, and she hit some huge shots. She knows how to play basketball. She knows the game. She came up huge!”
But that is exactly what has become expected of Walsh in her varsity career.
“Courtney is a big-time player,” said guard Alex Nagri. “She plays her best in the big games, and we know that. That is what we need. We need her to be a scorer with Casey (McLaughlin), and we will play defense.”
Title even sweeter
The Central girls may have been frustrated by the tourney losses each of the last two years, but finally hoisting the Division 1 state title trophy made the entire journey worth it.
“The past two years we have had big hopes and dreams like this but they ended too early,” said Williams. “Now, when it finally happens and we finally come though, I think the losses make it even sweeter. We can take it all in and really appreciate everything we did.”
After waiting so long, the Raiders had to shake some nerves.
“At first I was feeling like, ‘Oh my god, this is the state finals. Can I do it?’” said Williams. “Well, I knew I could do it. But there was so much pressure and we had waited so long. But you just had to keep playing.”
Overcoming foul trouble
Battling an aggressive front line, Central superstar McLaughlin found herself taking a rare trip to the bench in the first half after picking up a pair of fouls.
“That was unfortunate,” she said. “You never want to come out of the game. But I knew I would get back into the game in the second half and try to take over.”
McLaughlin, of course, did take over. And despite picking up her fourth foul, played smart and finished off the game.
Seconds take a lifetime
After four years of dreaming, the final seconds seemed to last forever for McLaughlin.
“I had to keep my emotions down and not start to cry while the game was going,” she said. “To end my career like this. I am so proud of my team.”
No matter how hard Williams tried, the emotions started to flow before the final horn.
“The whole last 30 seconds I was jumping around,” she said. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I kept telling myself I had to keep playing, but it just wasn’t going to happen.”
An overjoyed Nagri agreed, “It was right there in our hands. I just wanted the clock to run out. I just wanted to celebrate.”
Nothing is safe
How hard did the Central girls celebrate on the court after winning the state title?
A few broke the medals that were handed out to each player following the victory.
“Now I have to figure out how to put it back together,” said Williams with a laugh, picking it up off the floor again. “So I hope it’s OK. I want to hang it up in my room.”
An elated McLaughlin almost left hers on the DCU floor, not realizing it had come off the ribbon around her neck as she screamed and hugged her teammates.
“Yeah, we were just so excited,” she said. “After everything we have battled through, we were just to excited. And hey, we have the trophy.”
This win marks the fifth straight year that either Central or Andover has won the Division 1 state girls basketball title. That certainly is impressive and says something about the strength of the MVC.
“There’s a lot of good competition,” said Central’s Amanda Williams. “It’s a fight in the MVC and then the North (bracket). We knew if we win that (North bracket) then we can do anything because that’s where the toughest competition is.”
Central to stay strong
Central will return four starters next year. Starters Amanda Williams, Alex Nagri, Courtney Walsh and Caitlin Dell’Orfano all are expected back.
Losing McLaughlin will be a big loss, but things are looking up.
“They’re definitely going to be a strong team next year, no doubt about it,” said McLaughlin who will play at Stonehill. “I know they’ll go strong into the playoffs like this year. They just need to keep toughing it out.”