"The Bus Leaves NOW!"
Those words are scrawled atop a framed drawing of a purple bus cruising, crammed with the Hampton Bays girls basketball team -- with detailed caricatures of each player.
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The real bus will depart in a few days, technically, for Hampton Bays after Tuesday night's Long Island championship victory earned it a 90-mile ride to the Southeast Regional in New Rochelle.
But this journey, really, isn't to be measured in miles, but years.
"We've been saying this for four years, 'Get on the bus,' and it's been a struggle," said senior Trish Liotta, one of several Baymen who are four-year varsity members. "We finally did it."
And they did it in large part because of Liotta. Grimacing and limping throughout the contest, but insistent on playing through a knee injury, Liotta scored 12 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter as Hampton Bays held off Oyster Bay, 61-56, in the Long Island Class B final at St. Joseph's (L.I.).
Liotta injured her right knee in a collision during the Suffolk final and missed Hampton Bays' previous two games, but she refused to sit out another.
"There wasn't structural damage, just a lot of swelling," said Liotta, who left last night's game four times but was reinserted shortly thereafter. "There was no way I was missing this."
She didn't miss any shots in the clutch, either. When Oyster Bay pulled within two with 6:35 left, she answered with a right-wing three on the ensuing possession. The Baymen got within three with 2:52 left, and Liotta responded by making three free throws.
"It shows how tough she is, mentally and physically," said teammate Haley Wood, who scored 12 points. "She was our motivation when she got hurt, and this time, her playing in pain, was our inspiration."
Hampton Bays (20-3), which captured its first L.I. title since 2008, will face Woodlands or Highland in the Southeast Regional final at 2 p.m. Saturday.
And the promise of that picture -- drawn last summer by coach Pat McGunnigle's daughter, Colleen -- will be fulfilled.
"It means that we're not stopping," said sophomore Alexis Fotopoulos, who scored 22 points. "It means we've got a destination to reach and nothing will stop the ride."
Oyster Bay almost did.
Gianna Gotti's free throws gave Oyster Bay a 53-52 lead with 1:04 remaining, but Fotopoulos answered immediately -- a running hook shot off the glass. Fotopoulos then hit four consecutive free throws to push the lead to 58-53.
The teams exchanged runs throughout, with Hampton Bay taking a 17-9 lead in the first quarter. Oyster Bay roared back and went up, 27-26, on Hannah Kaiser's jumper early in the third. Fotopoulos retook the lead for Hampton Bays with a put-back, and so the teams continued.
Gotti scored 18 points, including 11 in the fourth, for Oyster Bay (14-6), which had captured its first Nassau championship since 2009. Hannah Kaiser and Jackie Romeo each added nine points.
"I made all the girls sign a contract in the summer," McGunnigle said. "They promised to devote themselves to getting upstate."
That contract is now a bus pass.