LAWRENCE — Junior guard Kaylee Thomas drilled a straightaway 3-pointer with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter to give the Central Catholic girls’ basketball team a commanding 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
The Raiders (19-2) used their double-digit cushion to help stave off a fourth-quarter comeback and defeat Merrimack Valley Conference rival Billerica, 52-44, in Saturday’s Division 1 North quarterfinal.
“Mentally and physically we were tough,” said Central coach Casey Grange. “I think every possession we dug in and we got after the loose balls. They were trying to leave it all on the court.”
Senior forward Katie Kirsch, who scored 10 points and helped Central (19-2) build an early lead, echoed her coach’s statement.
“Our word for the postseason has been fight,” Kirsch said. “I think that was a big thing in that last quarter.”
Following the three by Thomas, the Raiders entered the final quarter with their largest lead of the game. But seventh-seeded Billerica (15-7) battled back.
Freshman Madison Watford drained a corner 3-pointer and senior Nicole Wedge followed with a layup to cut the deficit to three with 3:45 remaining.
Central stayed aggressive on offense though, and converted eight late free throws to pull away.
Kirsch and fellow senior Ava Bradley (14 points) each made shots from the charity stripe in the final minutes and secured key offensive rebounds.
The duo walked off the floor along with classmate Maura Smith with 30 seconds left and the win secured. They received a standing ovation from the Memorial Gymnasium crowd.
“It was crazy,” Kirsch said of the moment,the pair’s last home game. “It was awesome. We have the best fans in the state, so it makes it bittersweet.”
Central will play the winner of Monday’s Lowell-Masconomet matchup in a North semifinal at Whittier Tech (TBA).
“We faced a lot of adversity and I’m just proud of the way our team came through tonight,” Grange said.
“This senior class is unbelievable. They battled every single day and bought in. They fight and do the little things that add up to the big things. We just got to keep fighting.”