There's something about Long Island Lutheran and these close games. They had two crushing one-point defeats earlier in the season and, on Saturday, won by three. It was another of those fourth quarters – the wipe-your-sweat-and-hold-your-breath type – in their 48-39 win over Manhattan Center on Sunday night at In-Tech Academy in the Bronx.
Don't let the final score fool you, it was a five-point game until the final seconds. But don't let that last sentence mislead you, because the Crusaders had led by 16 at one point.
“I feel like we might've had too much confidence, like we have such a lead we didn't need to be as urgent,” said Sam Milhaven, who had eight points. “We saw the scoreboard and we were up 16. Then we looked up again a couple minutes later and it was down to 8. We realized they're making those shots now, we need to regain the momentum we had earlier.”
Paige Kriftcher added: “I told my team we have to play our game. [Manhattan Center] wanted to run, run, run and that's the kind of game they got us into. I think we're better when we're calm and controlling the pace.”
LuHi looked to be in complete control, holding a 38-22 lead after the third. Both teams appeared sluggish and sloppy in the first quarter (it was 8-2 after one) but the Crusaders' offense and intensity picked up in the middle quarters.
But those darn Rams, they just wouldn't go quietly. Manhattan Center rallied, putting some pressure on Lutheran, and Brea Castro's layup pulled them within 44-39 with 31 seconds left. Given the time/score ratio, that would seem, ostensibly, a safe lead. But not when you consider that Lutheran, the day before, saw JFK of the Bronx make a late push and just narrowly escaped with a 69-66 win as a three-pointer at the buzzer clanged off the back rim.
It didn't come down to that Sunday, though. Kriftcher hit a free throw with 25.2 seconds remaining and Boogie Brozoski drove the dagger, getting a steal and converting a three-point play (drew contact on a layup) with 12.3 left.
“That was huge,” Milhaven said of Brozoski's clinching play. “That was good for her. It shows her leadership on the court and she's big-time.”
Kriftcher scored a game-high 13 points, Yuni Sher added 10 points and 11 rebounds, freshman Makeda Nicholas had seven points, six rebounds and three blocks, and Sade Gibbons had two points and eight rebounds.
Yes, they almost gave away three dominant quarters and the game probably should've been drama-free. But can surviving two taut fourth quarters in a weekend benefit the team?
“I think it lifts our confidence up a little,” Milhaven said. “We had some close losses earlier in the season. A game like this shows that we are good and we can pull these out.”
Coach Rich Slater said his team's youth was likely a factor in them “getting caught up in the craziness” and not being as poised early in the fourth quarter.
“But we're going to get better, and you get better from games like this where there's pressure,” he said. “We're a solid foul-shooting team and I liked the kids who were on the floor at the end.”
Kriftcher (3-for-4), Sher (2-for-2) and Brozoski (2-for-3) were solid at the line in the final three minutes to help stave off the Rams.
So, how's the leg?
Considering she led all scorers, I'd be remiss to not ask Kriftcher about the progress of her knee. She suffered a torn left ACL last summer and has played well, despite being just seven months removed from surgery. It's widely believed that it takes at least a year before an athlete is able to regain full flexibility and strength in the joint.
“I'm getting there,” the senior guard said. “I'm not 100% yet and it's a little sore, but I'd say I'm about 75-80%... It can get a little uncomfortable [during games]. If I'm playing a lot of minutes, it gets sore. But I just make sure to ice it a lot.”
She wears a large brace around the knee in games and said she goes to the gym three times a week to strengthen her legs.
“She's an important part of this team,” Slater said. “She's a dedicated kid and she's worked really hard to get back. She deserves the accolades she gets.”