Kira Villegas just wanted to calm her team down.
She figured the best way to do that was to put the ball in the basket. So she did.
The Aquinas sophomore shooting guard drained the first FEW buckets of the fourth quarter on March 11, padding the Lady Bears’ lead and wrapping up a 49-40 victory over St. Joseph in the CHSAA “B” state championship at Fordham University.
“It was very intense and we had to keep pushing ourselves,” said Villegas, who finished a team-high 16 points. “We wanted to pass the ball through the plays and just make sure [St. Joseph] didn’t steal the ball.”
Villegas drained a pair of three-point shots – and two more points from the line – to notch the first eight points of the fourth as the Lady Cougars dominated the tempo of the second half.
Aquinas held a seven-point lead at halftime, but St. Joseph came out of the break firing on all cylinders, making it a 27-24 matchup with just over five minutes left in the third.
The Lady Bears did their best to refocus their defensive effort – helped by timeouts and a serious size advantage on the block – and Aquinas gave up just four more points in the period.
“Once we got the lead, we knew, they couldn’t come back,” said Aquinas coach Roger Red Collier. “The girls just had to listen to the instructions that I was giving them. Sometimes they got lackadaisical and they wanted to do their own thing. But by listening to me, it worked out well.”
Aquinas controlled the game on the defensive side of the ball and, more importantly, limited the Lady Cougars to one-and-done possessions when they were able to get a shot off.
The Lady Bears out-rebounded St. Joseph 44-38, hauling in 28 rebounds on the defensive glass alone.
“They’re obviously a good team, but I felt that we held it down,” said junior center Ronella Kennedy, who racked up 13 points and 16 rebounds. “I just felt that we came here and we knew we worked so hard to get here. So I just wanted to put up as many stats as I could for my team.”
Aquinas opened the fourth on a 12-2 run, making it an 18-point game with 2:41 and, effectively, setting the Lady Cougars back on their collective toes. It was a big-time showing for the Lady Bears who fell to St. Joseph in the city final earlier this month.
Of course, Aquinas simply used that recent loss as motivation down the stretch.
“We played them before in the city final and we knew that we would see them again,” said Kennedy. “So I think that drove us and we said, we just want this more. We made it here and we’re not going home without this championship.”
It’s a huge moment for the program and a bit of bragging rights for an Aquinas team that four seniors on its roster. The team advances to the NYS Federation Tournament in Glens Falls later this month and while the Lady Bears may be young, they’re not lacking in confidence.
“The team believed in each other,” Collier said. “That’s something that you can’t take away from them, for them to believe in each other. Any downfall they had, they believed in each other and we made things happen.”
CORRECTION: An earlier-edition of this story incorrectly wrote that Aquinas lost to St. Joseph in the city final.