Long Island Lutheran's Kate Koval goes up for a shot...

Long Island Lutheran's Kate Koval goes up for a shot during the GEICO High School Basketball National Championships against Montverde Academy At Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., on Saturday. Credit: Photos for SportsCenter Next by Nick Wenger

It was never going to be that easy. It almost didn’t make sense that it would be. And in the end, it wasn’t.

After building a 16-point lead early in the third quarter, the Long Island Lutheran girls basketball team fell to Florida’s Montverde Academy, 60-54, in the championship game of the GEICO High School Basketball Nationals at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida, on Saturday morning. Montverde won its second straight national title.

Kayleigh Heckel led LuHi with 17 points and Savannah Swords had 12. Montverde’s Sahnya Jah, a South Carolina commit, scored 20 points.

Kate Koval, who scored a tournament-record 38 points in Friday’s semifinal win over Maryland’s McDonough, picked up two early fouls on Saturday. She played only five minutes in the first quarter and 11 minutes in the first half and finished with eight points and three rebounds in 27 minutes.

LuHi missed four three-pointers in the final minute, three of which would have tied it at 57. Jah collected an offensive rebound off a missed free throw with 12 seconds left and hit a layup to extend the lead to 59-54.

“What it really came down to was not getting stops,” LuHi coach Christina Raiti said. “We just didn’t have an answer for Sahnya Jah. She just put her shoulder down. Listen, there’s a reason why that kid’s going to South Carolina. She took over the game completely.”

LuHi (23-3) led 34-20 at halftime after shooting 14-for-27 from the field and 5-for-8 from three-point range in the first half. However, the Crusaders were outscored 40-20 in the second half and 19-6 in the fourth quarter.

Montverde began to hit its three-pointers and make layups that weren’t falling in the opening half. It shot 24% (6-for-25) from the field and 1-for-6 from outside the arc in the first two quarters.

“I think they out-toughed us a little bit,” Heckel said. “We were still playing really hard, but I give [Montverde] credit because they didn’t quit till the end.”

Montverde tied it at 50 with 5:16 left in the fourth quarter, the first tie since the opening tip. It took its first lead at 52-50 on Cori Allen’s layup with 4:40 left.

“We lost the energy we came in with,” Swords said. “We started out strong, hitting shots. Then somehow during the half, we just lost that spark, and I think they took advantage of that.”

LuHi opened an 11-3 lead with 4:58 left in the first quarter after Savannah Swords scored the first five points of the game and her sister, Syla, hit a three-pointer. LuHi went on a 7-0 run later in the quarter to extend its lead to 18-6, capped by a jumper from Savannah Swords with 2:25 left. The Crusaders led 21-12 after the first quarter.

“We knew it wasn’t over,” Heckel said. “We played them earlier in the season and we were up [21-10] after the first quarter and they were able to come back. We thought they could come back because we had that exact same experience with them earlier in the season.”

Montverde beat LuHi, 67-60, on Jan. 20 in Glen Head.

LuHi shot 37.0% (20-for-54) from the field, 29.4% (5-for-17) from three-point range and 69.2% (9-for-13) from the free-throw line. Montverde shot 42.6% (20-for-47) from the field, 50% (6-for-12) from three-point range and 77.8% (14-for-18) from the free-throw line.

Ultimately, this is only a starting point for LuHi, which has its entire starting five returning next season. There were far more highs than the low of Saturday.

Last weekend, the Crusaders won the state Federation championship. Earlier this season, they won the Nike Tournament of Champions.

“That shows us how successful we were this year,” Heckel said. “Even though we didn’t get the end goal that we were really hoping for, we know that we’ll be here again next year and playing for this championship.”


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