By Dan Wright
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Senior forward Nikki Kiernan made three of four free throws in the final 11.8 seconds, including two with her Thoroughbreds down a point, to send Newport Central Catholic past Holy Cross, 54-52, Saturday and into today’s 9th Region championship game.
NewCath head coach George Stoll said he was fully confident in his star player, even through Kiernan made just 58.8 percent (10 of 17) of her free throws in the game, below her team-leading 71.5 percent free throw rate entering the game.
“She’s the player of the year in the region,” Stoll said. “I knew those two foul shots were in.”
Holy Cross still had a chance to regain the lead after Kiernan made two free throws to put NewCath ahead, 53-52, with 11.8 seconds remaining, but sophomore guard Dajah McClendon’s layup rolled off the rim and Kiernan won the battle for the ball that ensured.
“She got an awesome shot,” said Holy Cross head coach Kes Murphy. “It was a layup with her left on the side she wants. It banked. It was right there. It just did not fall.”
Kiernan made 1 of 2 free throws after being fouled with 2.8 seconds left and a half-court heave by McClendon missed, capping what started as a game of runs, but turned into a tense, fourth-quarter battle.
NewCath fell behind early, 7-4, but Kiernan scored seven points and senior forward Stephanie Lewis four more as the Thoroughbreds closed the first quarter on an 11-0 run to lead 15-7.
Lewis picked up her third foul with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter, however, and Holy Cross took advantage with a 14-1 run that had the Indians ahead, 28-20, at halftime.
Foul trouble swung momentum in the Thoroughbreds' favor in the third quarter, as both of Holy Cross’s twin centers, juniors Ally and Cessie Mayhaus picked up their third fouls in the first 36 seconds of the second half, and both had four fouls by the 5:13 mark in the third quarter.
“Our bigs got in foul trouble and that hurt us, based on the personnel we had to play with,” Murphy said. “But at the end of the day, despite them having to sit as long as they long as they did, I think the kids that came in and got minutes stepped up and played well."
The Thoroughbreds opened the second half on a 15-0 run to move ahead, 35-28, but McClendon scored nine straight points for the Indians to tie the score at 39-39 before a put-back by Kiernan gave NewCath a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Kiernan led the Thoroughbreds with 24 points and 13 rebounds while junior forward Alexus Mayes scored 11, making five of five from the floor.
“Alexis Mayes was absolutely huge today,” Stoll said. “It was great to see her step up. Nikki and Alexus put us on their backs a little bit and carried us. I’m proud of them.”
As a team, NewCath made 18 of 37 shots (48.6 percent), but only 17 of 31 free throws (54.8 percent) and 1 of 11 3-pointers (9.1 percent).
McClendon led all scorers with 25 points, making 8 of 17 from the floor and 9 of 13 from the foul line. Cessie Mayhaus added 13 points for Holy Cross, which made 18 of 45 shots (40.0 percent) from the floor, 2 of 7 3-pointers (28.6 percent), and 14 of 21 (66.7 percent) from the line.
“She absolutely killed us and she’s a great basketball player,” Stoll said of McClendon. “In tournament time that’s what great players do, they step up.”
After three quarters of wild surges, the fourth quarter featured five ties and eight lead changes, with neither team ever leading by more than two points.
Holy Cross appeared poised to pull the upset when senior guard Michelle Hungler buried a 3-pointer from the corner with 41 seconds left to put the Indians ahead, 52-51, but Stoll called two timeouts to set up the game-winning play for Kiernan.
“After the second timeout that we had, Nikki was wide open coming underneath the basket,” Stoll said. “We were just a little late getting it to her, but then when we did get it to her, they had to go over the back and foul, because they were out of position.”
Kiernan was just as confident as her coach that she would make the two free throws that put NewCath through to today’s championship game
“The first two I knew I was going to make them. I was feeling good,” Kiernan said. “The second ones I was just happy I was able to make the first two.”
While NewCath will get to play Notre Dame at 6 p.m. on Sunday for a chance at its second regional title in four years, Murphy is hopeful that his Indians can get to a similar position next year.
“The biggest thing with those guys is that they did not give up. They did not hang their heads. There was no poor me,” Murphy said. “They kept fighting and to have them do what they did is awesome for us. Despite having lost, knowing the fact we have all these kids back, and they got a taste of success I think they’re going to work harder in the offseason to get right back here next year."
H. CROSS 7-21-11-13—52
NEWPORT CENTRAL CATHOLIC (28-4): Davenport 2 0 5, Ware 2 2 6, Lewis 2 0 4, Mayes 5 1 11, Kiernan 7 10 24, Zimmerman 0
4 4. Totals 18 17 54.
HOLY CROSS (21-8): McClendon 8 9 25, Hungler 2 0 6, Tucker 1 0 2, C. Mayhaus 5 3 13, A. Mayhaus 1 2 4, Gabbard 1 0 2. Totals 18 14 52.
3-pointers: N—Davenport. H—Hungler 2.