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Oliver Ames holds off Whitman-Hanson in thriller before sellout crowd

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EASTON — Experience paid off for Sarah Hilliard on Friday night.

The senior collected nine points and 11 rebounds, as fifth-seeded Oliver Ames knocked off No. 13 Whitman-Hanson in front of a sellout home crowd to advance to the Div. 2 girls basketball semifinals with a thrilling 33-32 victory.

“I’ve been here a long time,” said Oliver Ames coach Brian Costello. “I’ve been on the boys side too, and I’ve never seen anything close to this, at all. It’s everything (in) a high school basketball atmosphere that you dream of, I think. Two really good teams, two communities that just love their school and athletics, and that just come out in huge numbers to support. We certainly gave them their money’s worth.”

So many fans arrived that some had to be turned away at the gate. The programs engaged in a defensive standoff to start, as Oliver Ames (17-6) took a slim 6-2 lead into the second quarter.

Then senior Katherine Farley helped provide a much needed spark off the bench. The forward finished with six points in the first half to help Oliver Ames construct a comfortable 22-8 advantage at the break.

Yet, Costello and his staff were still hesitant to look ahead. Whitman-Hanson had overcome large deficits multiple times this season even within recent playoff play.

Jenna Mishou banked home a three to open the third quarter, and the Panthers (18-5) began to chip away. With just over a minute to play in the stanza, Maliah Pierre fed an inbounds pass to Mishou, who sank a layup to trim a once big deficit to just 24-23.

“I guess if you looked at both of us, going through this as well, that this was inevitably what this game was going to turn into,” Costello said. “Credit to (Whitman-Hanson), they had such a great run. They’re so well-coached, and their mentality to just never give up (was admirable). To be in two games where they had that point total at the half and then come back is just a testament to what they have there.”

The Tigers responded by closing the quarter on a 4-0 run, and found themselves clinging to a 28-23 lead. From there, it became a matter of making defensive stops.

A few fans may have hastily filed for the exits to beat the traffic rush when Avery Gamble drove to the basket for a late layup, giving Oliver Ames a 32-26 edge with just over a minute left in regulation.

However, Whitman-Hanson had one final surge left. With 13.2 seconds to play, Lillie MacKinnon buried a triple for the Panthers to close it to a one-point contest at 32-31.

After Mari Hughes sank one of two free throws to put Oliver Ames up, 33-31, the Tigers committed their fifth foul with 4.6 seconds remaining, sending Mishou to the free throw line. The sophomore missed her initial attempt, and a timeout was called.

Mishou sank the second attempt to make it a one-point game, but the Panthers were unable to foul, and Oliver Ames was able to bleed out the waning seconds.

Gamble added seven points for Oliver Ames.

Mishou finished with 15 points and nine rebounds for Whitman-Hanson. Junior Taryn Leonard added three points and 10 boards for the Panthers.

Oliver Ames will attempt to return to its second Div. 2 title game in the last three seasons when it takes on top-ranked Medfield in the Final Four.

“It was a lot,” said Hilliard. “Our main focus was to keep our focus. We’re not letting the opponent get into our heads, we’re not letting the crowd get into our heads. It’s us against everyone else. All we needed was us, and that’s how we brought ourselves together, and pulled out this win.”

Annie Reilly of Oliver Ames drives by Whitman-Hanson's Taryn Leonard during girls basketball action Friday. (Staff Photo/Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)
Annie Reilly of Oliver Ames drives by Whitman-Hanson’s Taryn Leonard during girls basketball action Friday. (Staff Photo/Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)

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