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Northfield beats Air Academy in OT to become first DPS girls program in 14 years to advance to state hoops title game

Northfield appeared dead and buried numerous times in Thursday’s Class 5A girls Final Four at the Denver Coliseum.

The Nighthawks were down 14 points in the second quarter. They roared back in the third, then went down nine points to start the fourth. And with 90 seconds left, they trailed by five.

But each time, No. 4 Northfield rose to the moment and ultimately shocked top-seeded Air Academy in an instant-classic overtime thriller, 70-66. The result left both benches crying — the Kadets in heartbreak, and the Nighthawks in jubilation as their historic season continues into Saturday’s championship.

“Today, we let people know they can’t view us as the underdogs,” declared Northfield junior point guard Aliyah Herron, who led all scorers with 22 points. “Because we’re going to come out and play hard for a full game, we’re going to show out, we’re going to put our all out there.

“(Opponents) need to give us a little more respect than they have, and no one can doubt us anymore. It seemed like everyone was already looking forward to the title matchup between Air Academy and (defending champion) Roosevelt, and looking past us. But we are a team you can’t look past.”

With the win, Northfield became the first DPS girls program in 14 years to advance to the title game, since Denver East beat Legacy to capture the 2010 Class 5A championship. And the Nighthawks are just the third DPS program all-time to do so, counting Montbello’s pair of championship appearances in 1986 and ’97.

Northfield overcame a horrendous shooting start (4 of 24 from the field in the first quarter) and hung in during a second quarter dominated by the Kadets. Air Academy led 32-21 at the break, but then first-year Nighthawks coach Sydney Price put on the full-court press the rest of the game, and everything changed.

“We needed our guards to get up and pressure, and that’s what we did,” Price said. “We needed to shut down (Air Academy junior forward Tatyonna Brown), shut down (senior guard Caitlin Kramer), and make somebody else bring the ball up the court and we did that. We couldn’t let their stars beat us.”

Brown still finished with a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but the Northfield forward tandem of senior Nashara Ellerbee and freshman LaPorsha Allen helped limit Brown’s damage in the second half.

Air Academy was frazzled by the Nighthawks’ pressure, just as the Kadets were in last season’s Great 8 defeat to Roosevelt. The score was deadlocked 41-41 going into the fourth, and even when the Kadets jumped out to a 50-41 lead to start the quarter, Northfield didn’t blink.

“My girls never thought we were out of it,” Price said. “We know how to grind. We play baseline to baseline, and I told them in the huddle, ‘There’s nobody in this state that can play baseline to baseline with us.’ We were going to wear them out, tire them out, and then when it comes down to it, we were going to finish.”

The Nighthawks did just that, and in dramatic fashion, too.

In the waning minutes of the fourth, Air Academy was a stop away from putting the game on ice multiple times. But the Nighthawks wouldn’t fade, and junior guard Alena Vondracek drilled a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left to force OT with the score 56-56.

“I could feel it was going in off my hand,” Vondracek said. “And I could feel the energy of our team and our crowd take control in that moment.”

Air Academy was already without one starter heading into the extra frame, as forward Ramah Khammash fouled out midway through the fourth quarter. Then the Kadets found themselves in serious trouble when Kramer also fouled out 25 seconds into overtime. The CSU commit and Air Academy’s best player was distraught on the bench, and Northfield owned the momentum from there.

Kramer finished with 15 points and the Kadets’ other top guard, junior Lydia Flowers, posted 20. But Air Academy didn’t have the depth that Northfield did, as the Nighthawks’ bench outscored the Kadets’ bench 20-1.

The Nighthawks led for only 2:16 of the game (6.1%) but came up clutch in the tensest moments. Their stingy full-court defense also forced 35 turnovers by Air Academy, which resulted in 29 points.

“(In crunch time) it was all about the small details,” Price said. “We had to get every loose ball, and we just about did. We had to box out, rebound with intensity, and we’d be good to go. And we were.”

In addition to Herron’s scoring outburst, which included four three-pointers, Northfield had three other players in double figures. Allen had 13, while fellow freshman Madison Bethel had 10, as did Vondracek.

Price, who coached the Manual girls for four years and then the Lady Blackhawks club for a decade before arriving at Northfield, says her team made another statement about the program’s ascent with the comeback against favored Air Academy.

“We’re the No. 1 team,” Price asserted. “We’ve been fighting all season to be that No. 1 (and for respect) — but we knew all along we were No. 1, regardless of the rankings. Everybody in our huddle believed it and it showed when we were down today — everybody bought into their role. We’re carrying that belief into Saturday.”

Northfield improved to 24-3 with the win, while the Pikes Peak League champion Kadets finished 25-2, with their other loss coming to Class 4A Final Four contender Riverdale Ridge.

To join Denver East’s 2010 squad and Montbello’s Class 5A champions from 1997 as the lone DPS girls teams to win a hoops crown, Northfield will need one more upset up its sleeve. They take on Roosevelt in Saturday’s title at 10 a.m. after the Roughriders beat Mead 47-40 on Thursday afternoon.

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