PAWTUCKET — After watching his team handily win its first nine Division II games of the season by double figures, seven by more than 17 points, St. Raphael Academy head coach Fred Saunders got what he longed to see on Monday night – a competitive, down-to-the-wire duel against a formidable opponent.
But while he got a tight battle in his team’s crossover game against Johnston, he and his players didn’t get the final result they wanted.
Junior forward Alexandra DiRaimo’s clutch layup off an inbound pass under the net as time expired allowed the Panthers to bus home with arguably their biggest victory of the season, a 65-63 thriller over the previously-unbeaten Saints on their Alumni Hall floor.
This was indeed a very bitter defeat for the Saints, who after watching the Panthers wipe out a 51-37 lead with 8:08 to go and tie the score at 55-55 with 2:05 on the clock, fought back to reclaim the lead and later get a bit of breathing room when Rybecca Gonzalez hit a pair of free throws with 11.7 seconds left to make it a 63-60 game.
But the Panthers, who improved to 8-2 in the league, quickly worked the ball back up the court, and with 2.7 seconds to play, they got a big three-pointer from Isabella DiRaimo to knot the score and send her team into a frenzy on its bench.
At that point, the game appeared to be headed into overtime, but with 1.2 seconds to go, the Saints inbounded the ball, only to turn it over on a travel.
That gave the Panthers a chance to win the ballgame, and they took full advantage of the opportunity when Alexandra DiRaimo took the inbound pass, and with three SRA players zeroing in on her, tossed it off the glass and through the twines as the horn sounded.
“We didn’t play our best ball tonight,” offered Saunders. “Our defense was just not there and Johnston took full advantage of it. Both teams played hard and they played well, but Johnston just came out on top.”
This game was a wild seesaw affair that offered a little of everything, from an abundance of fouls (39 total, with a technical for each side) and turnovers (48) to each team rattling off double-digit runs in each half.
The Saints actually stormed out to an 11-0 lead in the first 2:49 of play, but the Panthers slowly battled back, and thanks to a 14-point surge of their own midway through the half, they found themselves holding a 25-16 command with 3:57 left.
The hosts gathered their composure and tied the contest with a 12-3 run, but a pair of free throws by Amanda Colombo with 3.5 seconds on the clock gave Johnston a 30-28 edge at intermission.
The early stages of the second half was a back-and-forth battle until the hosts stormed off with a 15-point run to claim their 51-37 command.
With 5½ minutes to play, SRA still led by 14 (55-41), but the Panthers amazingly rattled off a 14-point run to tie the score.
With 1:45 left, the Saints recaptured their lead on a pair of free throws by Kaylee Oliver, and after a missed three-pointer by the Panthers, Gonzalez drove the paint for a layup to give SRA a four-point cushion with 1:29 to play and force the Panthers to call a time-out.
When play resumed, Isabella DiRaimo sank a three-pointer to cut her team’s deficit to a point, but the Saints maintained their hold on the lead right up until Gonzalez’s late free throws.
Despite the defeat, the Saints got a superb night from senior co-captain Lauren Gaj, who netted a game-high 23 points to go with 10 rebounds, and Gonzalez also ended up with a nice double-double that included 16 points and 10 boards.
Karina Mattera, one of the top scorers in the Division II-North ranks, led the Panthers with 22 points. Isabella DiRaimo sank four three-pointers (three in the final 3:22 of play) to end up with 15 points, and Alexandra DiRaimo finished with 12.