By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – When in doubt lean on Azzi Fudd.
If you didn’t that would have been a shame because when the nation’s top schoolgirl is in your lineup that’s your go-to player with the game and more on the line.
Fudd, the 5-11 All-American, was the given the chance to win it for St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.) Friday afternoon with the score tied at 61. Once Fudd took the inbounds pass, she was bumped with 8.3 seconds. Calmly, coolly she drilled both free throws but the Cadets weren’t off the hook.
SJC needed all the help on the final play when Melanie Isbell launched a three-point field goal attempt from the right wing. The Centennial (Las Vegas, Nev.) sophomore guard had a clean look and it was on line for the winner.
“Honestly I thought it was going in,” SJC coach Jonathan Scribner said afterwards.
The ball bit hard on the right side of the iron and the second-seeded Cadets lustily celebrated and breathed a sigh of relief, surviving that challenge from Centennial in a 63-61 pulse-thickening win in the semifinals of the GEICO High School Nationals at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
With the victory, SJC (36-1) plays fourth-seeded New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) for the GEICO Nationals girls’ championship Saturday morning at 10 a.m. EDT on ESPN2. Both programs will be looking for their first national championship. The loaded bracket feature the nation’s top-4 teams with a true champion to be crowned.
Centennial, the five-time Nevada Class 4A state champions, finished 31-2. This was the first year the Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association allowed teams to participate at the GEICO Nationals.
It was a heckuva performance.
It will be an all-DMV final—acronym for District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia—with the national title up for grabs. It’s must-see TV; think of it as bagels and basketball on Saturday morning. It’s surely a game for the ages.
“The DMV some of the best players in the nation; all of the best players are athletes. I think the WCAC [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] is the best in the nation for girls’ high school basketball. It will be a great game for the DMV.”
Fudd was the star of stars this afternoon, bucketing a game-high 27 points while collecting six rebounds and three assists. She made 8 of 17 shots and was effective at the foul line hitting 8 of 10. Wagner-bound Alex Cowan scored 18 points, clicking on all four three-point attempts.
“Our program stresses defense and mental toughness; that was the difference today,” Cowan said.
When the game was still in the balance, SJC rose and Centennial fell short by three inches on the potential game winning three-pointer.
The initial three quarters were merely a prelude for the fantastic finish.
Centennial surrendered the lead in the third and regained it with 2:37 left when Deajah Phillips nailed a three-point field goal for a 58-57 lead.
If SJC appeared at ease in the opening eight minutes, the next stretch was marked by Centennial showing the athleticism and depth.
It took nearly 15 minutes of the opening half but the lady Bulldogs were determined to catch the Cadets and did with 68 seconds left.
It became apparent that Centennial’s main focus was limiting Fudd’s touches and use their deep bench to wear down the Cadets. In the third quarter that was holding true to form when Eboni Walker’s basket made it a 10-point gap at 41-31, at 5:37.
“I’m nervous before every game until I get in the flow of play,” Fudd said.
SJC finally tallied in the third quarter after 2 ½ minutes and then went on a 10-2 tear to made it 43-41 with three minutes to go. Cowan’s long 3-pointer off an assist from Fudd brought the Cadets within two. Fudd evened the game at 43 a minute later.
But SJC, which has been through the battles of a long season in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, did not wilt. Cowan and Fudd made sure of it.
With 1:25 left Cowan dropped in a 3-pointer and Fudd hit a delicate pull-up jumper from 12 feet to make it 48-43. Centennial’s Walker and Amanda Phoumiphat added baskets in the final 47 seconds to reduce the deficit to 48-47 through three.
That’s when Phillips converted a traditional three-point play, giving the Nevada powerhouse a 30-29 lead—their first of the contest.
Centennial charged into the break when Quinece Hatcher drilled a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer for a 35-31 lead. Hatcher’s bomb from the right side blew the roof off the packed gym and gave the Nevadans a jolt for the final 16 minutes.
Phillips had seven points and three boards by the intermission; Taylor Bigby scored nine points (4 of 8 shooting) and Walker carried the scoring load with 10 and ripped down five rebounds.
Fudd totaled 13 points in the opening half, but connected on only 4 of 10 shots, including two three balls. Cowan added nine and made both shots from downtown. SJC was plagued by nine turnovers.
SJC played like a national championship contender in the first quarter and maintained a comfortable 20-14 lead. Fudd showed why she was recently named the Gatorade National Player of the Year, as an all-everything, transformative player each time she touched the ball.
Fudd, a sophomore, was clicking from the perimeter, defending and setting up her teammates. Centennial was unfazed and stayed the course.
“I’m always trying make the good play whether it’s scoring or drawing in defenders so I can pass to another teammate. Today was a sloppy game. We haven’t played in over a month but we’re ready for the final,” Fudd said.
Walker, an Arizona State signee, scored a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds in her final prep game and Phillips added 15 points and five rebounds.
SJC was indeed sloppy and on the short end of the turnover tally at 18-14 but the scoreboard was the ultimate measure of the game.