Team leaders step up in big games, and that's what Mel Taylor did Sunday to help the Fighting Irish secure a St. Patrick's Day victory in the Class D Girls State Championship game at Hudson Valley College in Troy.
"I figured Mel would come up big today," said Head Coach Dave Pero. "She struggled yesterday, and she’s the type that if she struggles once, she’s not going to struggle a second time."
Notre Dame beat Oriskany 52-40 to capture the team's second state championship (the first came in 1999). It was Pero's first state championship as head coach of the Lady Irish.
Taylor finished with 24 points and was named MVP, but it was her 12 points in the first half that put Notre Dame in a position to win.
"Mel is great ball handler," senior Riley Norton said. "She’s very smart. She sets up our offense. Without her, we know we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It was a team effort, but Mel played amazing tonight. It was a great night (of) play, amazing."
As usual, the Fighting Irish defense made it very hard for an opponent to take many shots and then keep them off balance when they do, but like the semifinal game against Fort Edward, the Lady Irish couldn't get many of their own shots to drop, except for Taylor.
On Taylor's back, Notre Dame carried an 18-18 tie into the half.
"In the locker room we all said, 'just keep shooting' " Norton said. "Miss as many as you want because it’s going to happen. It’s always going to happen. If you get down on yourself then obviously you're not going to score."
Norton, who finished with 14 points, only hit three of her 10 three-point tries on the game, but two of those came early in the third quarter to help spark a rally that put Oriskany in a deep hole.
The Irish outscored Oriskany 22-10 in the quarter.
"We tried to wear them down with our press and they finally collapsed for about two minutes, and that’s all it takes in a game like this," Pero said.
For several of the girls, this is their second state championship in 12 months. Some of the team played on the 2012 softball team.
For Laurie Call, this was her third state championship. She also has a patch on her jacket for cross-country.
"It feels pretty great, but I just take it one thing at a time," said the junior from Oakfield. "I'm just so blessed and honored to be doing this."
While Call is credited with three points total for the game, she is many ways the spark plug of the team. Her main contribution -- defensive play that makes it hard for opponents to organize their offenses -- isn't something that gets measured on stat sheets.
Call is an aggressive, in-your-face defender. That aggression got her into foul trouble against Mt. Morris in the Section V Class D consolidation game, but she learned her lesson.
"I kept saying today – no steals, just pressure," Call said. "I just kind of kept that in my head the whole day."
Notre Dame's playbooks are written around defense -- keep the other team close, because eventually, you will start scoring.
"You can't turn them (shots) down," Pero said. "Maddie Mancuso, who’s coming off the bench, she shot five threes in the first half. They’re all great looks. They went in and out. I told her at half-time, you keep getting them, you keep shooting them. One drops, that’s three points. That’s our motto, we’ve got to keep shooting the basketball."
Shea Norton also contributed to the defensive effort with nine rebounds. She also added six points.
Oriskany's leading scorer, Christina Graziadei, was held to four points. Only one Redskin managed double-digit scoring, and that was sophomore guard Madison Zizzi, who had 11.
Ever since the Section V playoff win against Elba, the Lady Irish have been playing with more and more confidence each game.
Going into that big match with their chief rival, the Lady Lancers were defending state champions and had beaten Notre Dame five straight games, including the first two regular season games this year.
"Beating Elba just showed us we can do anything," Norton said. "We knew in our hearts we could beat them, but they came back and beat us the two times during the season. After we beat them, it was just 'thank the Lord,' and we were ready to go. We were ready to come here."
There's no doubt the Elba game helped propel the Irish forward, Pero said, but the whole season has been full of games that helped prepare his team for state-level competition.
"Our schedule really played a part of this post season," Pero said. "Not only playing Elba three times, and Romulus, but Plattsburgh was a great team in our first opening round game. They’re going to be a team to beat down the road. Then playing Batavia at the college in the Rotary Tournament, all of those things are a plus for us. We use those every game to talk about who we have to play and what we have to do. We look back at those and compare them to what we have here, it really forces the girls to focus on what they have to do to win."
When it came to crunch time Sunday afternoon, Taylor said she was so focused she didn't even realize her team had built a commanding 10-point lead.
Before that run, she said, she gave her teammates a pep talk.
"I didn’t want another Mt. Morris," Taylor said. "I didn’t want us to go down and lose confidence. I told everyone pull it together. It’s zero zero. That shot you missed never happened. We have short memories as athletes. We need to get over it so we can keep shooting and eventually they’ll go in."
The girls all said it felt like a dream once they realized victory was in their grasp. Norton said she wasn't counting on a win until the final 16 seconds, with a 12-point lead, but even then, she still couldn't believe it.
"I was sitting on the bench and I looked at everybody and I’m like ‘we just won?’ This feeling, I can’t describe it. I’m overjoyed. It’s just an amazing feeling."
Top photo: Taylor, Riley Norton, Shea Norton and Laurie Call celebrate as time expires.
Taylor in for a lay-up in the first quarter.
Driving up the lane, Taylor passes during third-quarter action.
Riley Norton and Mel Taylor wait for Shea Norton to take her second free throw during the closing minute of the game.
Pandemonium reigned for several minutes after time expired on the championship game.
When the team returned to Batavia, the caravan of players, fans and parents were given a police and fire escort down Main Street.
Following the return home, a victory party at T.F. Brown's.
Two slide shows below. One from inside the arena, the other, post-game celebrations. NYSPHSAA rules prohibit any media outlet that received credentials from posting photos for sale, so I can't sell the photos in the first slide show. You can purchase prints from the second slide show. To do that, click here.