By Gianna Addario
---- — WOBURN — The Salem girls basketball team knew its season was going to end at some point during the state tournament. Unfortunately it was difficult to see it happen this early on.
An injury plagued bench, including the loss of starting point guard Rachael Zipper, didn’t help the Witches chances against No. 3 seed Arlington Catholic in last night’s Division 2 first round match-up. Though Salem hung around in the first half, the Cougars pulled away with a 59-28 victory.
Arlington Catholic (17-6) will play North Andover in the quarterfinals on Saturday (time and place TBA).
“We played hard, which is number one,” said Salem head coach John Fortunato. “I love this team so much and how hard they’ve played all year long. We never gave up. We’re a young team and we can take this experience and use it even though it’s the end of our season. I’m proud of my team, I’m proud of every single one of them.”
The 14th-seeded Witches were riding a three-game win streak that pushed them into the state tournament field, despite numbers being down on the bench.
Salem (10-11) has been the underdog all season long, but put on an impressive first quarter performance that trickled into the second quarter. Arianna Gaffney hit two-long range three-pointers and the Witches only trailed by four at the end of one, 14-10.
“There was no secret that without Rachael, we had no point guard and it puts a lot of pressure on the other girls,” noted Fortunato. “As the game went out I thought the kids did a better job dealing with that pressure.
“We’re such a young group of girls. When you have a collection of girls with gifts to give, magical things happen when they play together and become much better than anyone individually. We did some pretty special things this year.”
Arlington Catholic took control of in the second quarter and took a 15-point lead into halftime (31-16). The Cougars wanted to ultimately wear Salem down and expose the limited amount of players on the Witches’ bench.
“John is a friend and I admire what he’s done with the girls,” said AC head coach Dave Brady. “Salem gave so much of themselves physically and they were so banged up. I just think they came in on fumes and they still played us so hard. As the game went on, because of the injuries they had, it seemed like they ran out of fuel.
“We started running and jumping more to create turnovers and it was to wear them down. I think if we didn’t wear them down, it would’ve been a closer game the entire way because of how well they play. No doubt it was going to be a battle, they were trying to stay with us in the end, but we were trying to stay with them in the beginning.”
Gaffney recorded a team-high 10 points and finished the season with 38 three-pointers. Sophomore captain Jackie Panneton added nine points, five of which came from the line, and grabbed seven rebounds.
Arlington Catholic, which got a game-high 12 points from Presley Silva, finished the game on 7-0 run and held Salem to just two points in the final quarter.
“I go out and scout everybody and I know how hard AC plays,” Fortunato said. “Getting ready for that type of pressure with the numbers we have or didn’t have, it was hard to prepare for that. To create that in a practice situation is very difficult.
“It’s always hard when it ends. I’ve always told the girls it’s not so much about the loss, it’s about the end of the season and who you love being with.”