NEW YORK – Riverdale Baptist left no doubt. The No. 10 Crusaders were on a mission and completed it Saturday morning.
Chania Ray earned Most Valuable Player honors, scoring 22 points and handing out four assists leading her team to a lopsided 60-35 victory over Fremont (Plain City, Utah) in the Dick’s Sporting Goods High School Girls’ National Tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden.
“Winning here was bigger for me because I’m a team leader and it’s every high school players dream to play in Madison Square Garden,” Ray said.
Fremont (25-3), which won Utah’s Class 5A championship in March, never dug itself out of a 15-0 hole to open the game. Riverdale enjoyed leads of 14, 19, 22 and 28 points, putting an exclamation mark on the title.
It is the Crusaders’ second HSNT championship, having won the title in 2012. They join Dr. Phillips (Orlando, Fla.) as the only two-time winners in six years of the event.
“For Dick’s Sporting Goods to move this game to Madison Square Garden just takes it over the top,” Riverdale Baptist coach Sam Caldwell said. “It was a great event to start and this year it went to another level.”
Riverdale Baptist, located in the suburban Washington town of Upper Marlboro, Md., gave the Utahans little breathing room, utilizing a trapping fullcourt press and up-tempo offense that normally resulted in layups.
Besides Ray, who signed with Florida State, North Carolina State-bound Chloe Jackson tossed in 14 points and senior guard Alysha Berry added 11.
Fremont’s lone bright spot was junior Shelbee Mole’s 13 points. Fremont converted only 12 of 53 shots (22.6 percent) and committed a whopping 28 turnovers, thanks mostly to Riverdale’s 1-2-2 press and multiple defensive looks.
“I believe we have one of the best backcourts in the country with Chania Ray and Chloe Jackson,” Caldwell said. “Chania is our catalyst; she pushes the rock up the floor. Chania is known as the “Mad Bomber,” because she has a green light to shoot the three.”
Ray made 3 of 7 shots from downtown, while the team went only 3 of 16, but it didn’t matter.
Each time Fremont mounted a mini comeback, the quicker, longer Crusaders withstood the challenge.
“We wanted to light them up early,” Caldwell said.
In the third, Ray cemented her MVP credentials, scoring seven points and adding three assists. Often times she’d get an outlet pass, sprint past a defender or fire a lead pass ahead for a transition basket.
Riverdale (28-3) carried a insurmountable 45-24 edge into the final period. For the Crusaders, it was a countdown to the championship trophy presentation.
However, Fremont never backed down.
McKenzie Burrows’ jumper make it 27-17 at 7:30, the Crusaders responded with a 10-2 tear. Senior Alysha Berry beat the defense twice on leakouts and Ray blew by with another transition hoop for a comfortable 37-19 lead at the midway point.
Fremont appeared at more ease in the second period, pulling within 10 points, 22-12, at 3:38 when Rylee Thompson converted a putback.
The Crusaders were not daunted.
When Fremont reduced the deficit to nine points, 24-15, on Mole’s long 3-pointer with 54 second left, Ray countered in transition with a trey making it 27-15 at the break. Ray, who scored 12 points in the opening half, made 4 of 8 shots, including two 3s. Mole scored seven points to lead the Silver Wolves.
The Silver Wolves may have been a victim of nerves on the big stage in the first quarter they trailed, 19-8.
“It’s tough to prepare for a team like this on such short notice; they were a more complete than Miami Senior who we played in the semifinals Friday,” Fremont coach Lisa Dalebout said.
It was an inauspicious start for the Utahans and they never recovered. It took Riverdale just 20 seconds to get on the scoreboard when Ray drilled a 3-pointer from the right perimeter. In contrast, Fremont needed 4:34 to break the ice when Kealani Sagapolu dropped in a layup.
After four minutes, it was 15-0, and the rout was on. Khalia Prather was a handful in the lane, hitting three quick turnaround jumpers and exploiting the smaller, slower Fremont posts. Prather left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury but contributed seven points and four rebounds in 11 minutes.
“It was a little overwhelming in the beginning; this is Madison Square Garden,” said BYU-bound Amanda Wayment, who added five points and seven rebounds in her final prep contest.
– Christopher Lawlor reporting