One Win Away!: Gritty Amesbury overcomes foul trouble, beats South Hadley to advance to Division 4 state championship

Mar. 16—FRAMINGHAM — It's a place that Liv DeLong, Avery Hallinan, McKenna Hallinan and Gabby Redford have envisioned going to since before the season started. Really, it's been an opportunity those four seniors have dreamed about earning over the course of their four-year careers at Amesbury.

A state championship game.

They've come so close in season's past, making it to back-to-back Division 3 North Finals (basically, a state quarterfinal) their freshman and sophomore years.

But Tuesday night, this group that has been focused entirely on one goal all year secured themselves an opportunity to play on the final day of the winter season. Led by 29 points from Avery Hallinan, No. 4 Amesbury took down a gritty No. 8 South Hadley team, 61-57, in the Division 4 state semifinal and earned itself a chance at history. Amesbury will play either No. 3 Lunenberg or No. 10 Millbury in the D4 state championship at Lowell's Tsongas Center either Friday or Saturday, as a time for the game has yet to be announced.

But, to even just get to this point, is further validation of the team's toughness and skill all year.

"It feels amazing," said DeLong, who finished with 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in the win. "I mean, I'm so proud of us. We've been working so hard all season, so this is really just making it all worth it. It's just amazing.

"This was our goal from the start. It's just a great feeling that we actually got there."

Make no mistake though, getting there was not easy for Amesbury (20-4).

With both DeLong and fellow starting forward Sami Kimball (9 pts, 9 rebs, 4 blks) picking up two fouls in the first half, Amesbury, already not the deepest team to begin with, watched as South Hadley (17-7) turned a deficit into a 23-19 halftime lead with those two on the bench the final four minutes of the second quarter.

Then, with five minutes left in the game, potential disaster struck.

Avery Hallinan had just came off a dominating 16-point third quarter where she put the team on her back offensively, and hit a layup at the buzzer to put Amesbury up 43-37 heading into the fourth. She then drilled a 3 to start the final quarter, and had Amesbury up 48-38 when she picked up her fourth foul. She stayed in the game, but after a South Hadley steal she reached in trying to get a jump ball and ended up picking up her fifth and fouling out — much to the delight of the Tigers' fan section.

Amesbury had to quickly face the reality of trying to hold a 10-point lead — in the state semifinal — with the reigning Daily News MVP and the two-time CAL Baker MVP on the bench.

"I told the guys up there, doing the broadcast, they asked 'What's the worst thing that can happen to you guys?' and I said, 'Foul trouble.' and that was it," said Amesbury coach Gregg Dollas. "We had Liv out and Sami out in the first half and then Avery in foul trouble. and then Avery fouling out with a 10-point lead, we needed all of those points! But you know what, McKenna stepped up and Gabby stepped up and Liv and all those girls, without Avery, did a phenomenal job."

Defensively, with the height of DeLong and Kimball in the post, South Hadley had problems scoring in the paint all game. When Hallinan went out, that didn't change. Momentum began to shift though as the Tigers sensed an opportunity, and Amesbury called a timeout to regroup with 3:55 left up 48-39.

Who was going to step up?

Well, as it turned out, the entire team.

Kimball got a huge bucket off an offensive rebound, then after another timeout Amesbury drew up a nice play that saw McKenna Hallinan drive and dish to Kimball again for a wide-open layup. That made it 52-41, and as South Hadley started to foul to prolong the game, Hallinan (10 pts, 5 rebs) was clutch and went 7-for-8 from the free throw line to help ice it.

"It was tough with Avery, and even starting off I had three fouls at the start of the second half,"said DeLong. "But I was confident in ourselves. I was confident that we could do it."

The Tigers didn't quit, and banked in two 3s and hit a couple more to make it 61-57 with 6.5 seconds left. Amesbury turned the ball over on the inbound, so, in theory, the Tigers had a chance for a miraculous four-point play to tie the game. But their inbounds pass was fumbled, wasting a couple of seconds, and after it was recovered the final heave hit off the front iron as the buzzer went off.

And when it did, Amesbury stormed the court in celebration of its state title berth.

"We're here, man! But it took a lot," said Dollas. "South Hadley played awesome. They hit shots, they played strong defense, they rebounded, they played like they were all 6-foot-2. They're awesome."

Amesbury 61, South Hadley 57

Division 4 Semifinals

South Hadley (57): Meg Carey 1-0-2, Talia Uribe 1-0-2, Olivia Marion 2-7-11, Kacie Levrault 6-3-17, Alex Jackson 4-1-12, Drew Alley 4-0-9, Cianna Gurek 1-0-2, Ange Besson 0-2-2, Maddie Soderbaum 0-0-0. Totals 19-13-57

Amesbury (61): Gabby Redford 1-3-5, McKenna Hallinan 1-8-10, Sami Kimball 4-1-9, Liv DeLong 3-0-8, Avery Hallinan 10-7-29, Cali Catarius 0-0-0, Eli Marden 0-0-0, Emma Dollas 0-0-0. Totals 19-19-61

3-pointers: A — DeLong 2, A. Hallinan 2; SH — Jackson 3, Levrault 2, Alley

South Hadley (17-7): 10 13 14 20 — 57

Amesbury (20-4): 13 6 24 18 — 61