"We're a unit, we stay together no matter what," said tournament MVP and co-captain Lauren Paiva after took home the Division III girls basketball team state title on Saturday, in a 52-32 win over Central High School, the only team to have defeated Middletown in the regular season. That loss occurred in February on Central's home court. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Islander team or "unit," as they call themselves. Looking back, and speaking to members of the team, it may have been the best thing for them.
Galvanized, they went on to dismantle Davies Career and Technical High School in their , and then faced that same Davies team in their earlier this week. Davies took it to Middletown in arguably the Islanders' worst performance of the season. It was a win nonetheless and the Islanders advanced to face Central once more.
This time it was for redemption. This time it was for the state championship title.
Central struck first in the game on a nice bucket by #14 for the Knights, Maima Sayeh. The first strike score was 2-0 in favor of Central. Why mention that?
It was the only lead Central would take over Middletown the entire game.
Kirsten Perry responded with a sharp jump shot to tie it at 2 and the Islanders never looked back.
Lauren Paiva fired a pass the length of the court to a waiting Nina Traglia, who put it in to give her team a 6-2 lead. The Islanders then hit the offensive gas pedal.
They talked. They passed. They scored.
The Islander "unit" went on a 15-5 run to close out the first half. The score at halftime was 21-7 in favor of Middletown.
This was the first ever appearance for the Middletown girls basketball program in a state title game.
Sixteen minutes separated them from the Division III state title.
They first had to finish what they started against Central in the first half. They had to defeat the only team to beat them all season. When Central came out to start the second half, Middletown quickly learned that was not going to be an easy task. Not in the least.
The Second Half
Central opened up with a full court press on the Islanders, noticeably more aggressive against Middletown than in the first half. It seemed to work. The Islanders seemed somewhat rattled by the sudden defensive posturing displayed by the Knights. A couple turnovers resulted and some signs of frustration showed on the faces of Middletown players.
Central made a few buckets to chip away at the Middletown lead. Middletown head coach Mike Yates called a full timeout to gather his team.
Middletown came out of the timeout with smiles on their faces. Those smiles quickly changed to stoic, focused faces. Middletown once again went on the offensive.
Lauren Paiva drove to the hoop and was fouled hard. She went to the line and did something that Middletown couldn't do against Central the first time, and against Davies in their first playoff game. She made free throws, sinking both. This put her team up 25-12 with 13:45 to go in the game.
From there, it was all Middletown. Islander junior and offensive staple Chelsea Dowler hit a runner to give the Middletown team their biggest lead of the game, now up 17, with the score 38-21 and six minutes remaining in the game.
Central never went away. They hung tough. They played hard. They just couldn't match the offensive output by Middletown.
Taylor O'Malley had a tough game against Davies. Coach Yates had said, "She was really hard on herself after that loss. She's been practicing lay ups and reverse lay ups all week."
No more was that apparent than with 5:18 to go in the game, when #44, the previously mentioned Taylor O'Malley made an acrobatic reverse lay up that caused an explosion from the Middletown faithful as well as her teammates on the bench. It simultaneously signaled the end of the night for Central.
The score was 40-21, and time wasn't on the Knights' side.
One of the other areas Middletown had improved upon both in their previous game against Central and their playoff game against Davies, was rebounding. The Islanders were all over the boards against Central. One defensive rebound led to a breakaway attempt by Taylor O'Malley who was fouled hard by Central and put on the line for two. A line that was not kind to Taylor against Davies.
Taylor sank them both and sank Central for good.
The clock wound down and the buzzer sounded.
The Islander girls were the Division III State Champions.
The final score was 52-32.
The Islanders spread the wealth offensively, but were led on the night by #22 Chelsea Dowler, who had 11. Nina Traglia finished with 10, as did Tournament MVP Lauren Paiva.
It was a battle, but one in which the Islanders seemed poised to win from the opening tip. For redemption. For each other. For the state title, which they now held high.
The Islanders finished the 2010-2011 season with a 23-1 overall record. It was a stark contrast from the previous year in which they had only a few scant wins.
After the Game
Lauren Paiva Named Tournament MVP
The awards ceremony followed the end of the game, and took place at center court. Central was awarded their second place trophies and medals. The Knights' #14 Maima Sayeh took home the game's MVP award.
Lauren Paiva was named the tournament MVP and was noticeably moved and surprised by the announcement over the speakers. Her teammates hugged and cheered as she accepted the award.
Afterwards, Paiva had TV cameras, and local and state media outlets clamoring for her attention. She was gracious and humble in the words she expressed, a testament to her parents, her team and her coaches.
Patch: What do you say, Captain? How are you feeling? What are you thinking?
Paiva: I say I love my team. We came together when we needed to. We were all on the same page. We all saw our hard work pay off. We all had the mentality that we knew we could win, that we had to win.
Patch: The difference between this game against Central and the last game against Central, not to mention the game against Davies, is pretty much like night and day. What would you say was the difference maker between those two games and this one?
Paiva: Unity, I think unity. We always play together, but this game we were just all dialed in. We knew this was our last game as a unit, and I knew this was my last game on a basketball court ever. We knew what we had to do, what we wanted to do and we did it. All that hard work paid off.
Patch: How do you feel about being named the tournament MVP?
Paiva: This is my team's (award), not just mine.
A Conversation with Coach Yates
Head Coach Mike Yates also took some time to talk about his team's season and the resulting Division III state title.
Patch: What are your thoughts after such a great year, and now having that state title in your hands and that banner going up in the Middletown gym?
Coach Yates: If we played well, and shot well, and did what I knew we had to do, I had no doubt we could win this. To be state champs and to win by 20? It's... Man, I can't even say. It's, it's fantastic.
Patch: Last time you played Central they beat you, and it was probably the toughest game you had all year, for them to come back and beat that same team for the state title. How proud are you of these girls right now?
Coach Yates: I'm so, so proud of them. They knew what had to happen to win, and they came out and flat out played, the just played and did such a great job. The girls are such a great unit, such a great family. It's just an amazing year. I couldn't be prouder of our team.
The team then headed down the tunnel towards the locker room and then onto the bus for a victory ride back to Middletown.
For Middletown seniors Taylor O'Malley, Mersina Simanski, and co-captains Kirsten Perry and Lauren Paiva, this is their final game in a Middletown Islanders uniform--a game which brought a state title championship to Middletown High and a lifetime of memories they will never soon forget.
Can the Islanders repeat next year?
The 2010-2011 Middletown High School Islander varsity girls basketball team finish their season as the Division III State Champions.