By ROB JONAS

 

GUILDERLAND – Shenendehowa's three-year reign as Section 2 Class AA champions came to an end Monday night.

 

Tessa Hughes made a key defensive stop with less than 30 seconds left, and Molly Kirby and Julie Okoniewski each sank free throws down the stretch to lift No. 4 Bethlehem to a 49-45 victory over No. 1 Shen in the Class AA semifinals at Guilderland High School.

 

“It felt so good,” said Kirby, who led Bethlehem with 17 points. “It felt like a miracle was happening.”

 

Shen (19-3) led exactly three times in the game – after the opening three-pointer by Alexandra Tudor, late in the second quarter and midway through the third quarter. But almost as quickly as Shen took the lead, Bethlehem (15-5) took the lead back.

 

“Credit Bethlehem. They hit shots when they needed to, and they hit free throws when they needed to,” said Shen coach Joseph Murphy.

 

Bethlehem's “core four” of Hughes, Okoniewski, and Molly and Maggie Kirby each came up big when the Lady Eagles needed it. Hughes had the defensive play of the game when she blocked a shot with 22 seconds left that would have potentially given Shen a one-point lead.

 

“That is a defensive rotation that we have worked on all year. Sometimes, it takes four months to get it right,” said Bethlehem coach Matthew Bixby. “We finally got the rotation right on that play.”

 

 

Okoniewski hit several baskets in the first half to help Bethlehem take a 23-21 halftime lead, but it was her defensive work on Shen center Catherine Almeida that made a difference. Despite giving three inches in height to the 6-5 Almeida, Okoniewski limited the junior to four points.

 

“I would argue that Julie was the mismatch,” Bixby said of Okoniewski. “She's defended players taller than her. She's defended players three inches shorter than she is. She's been playing great all year for us.”

 

The Kirby twins were clutch from beyond the three-point arc when Bethlehem's offense stagnated in the second quarter. Maggie Kirby drained a pair of threes to keep the Lady Eagles in front while Shen was rallying from a five-point deficit. Then after Cameron Tooley made a pair of free throws late in the second quarter to put Shen ahead 21-20, Molly Kirby sank a three-pointer to give Bethlehem its two-point halftime advantage.

 

 

Shen scored six of the first eight points of the third quarter to grab a 27-25 lead before baskets by Maggie Kirby, Okoniewski and Molly Kirby propelled Bethlehem back in front. Shen got within one point several times after that, but Bethlehem pulled away each time to hand the Plainsmen their first Section 2 playoff loss since 2015.

 

“Shen has always been our rival,” said Molly Kirby. “They're a tough-to-beat team. We just had to keep playing hard and working together.”

 

Okoniewski contributed 12 points, and Hughes and Maggie Kirby each added 10 points for Bethlehem, which advances to Saturday's Class AA final against No. 2 Colonie, which defeated No. 3 Shaker 57-47 in the other semifinal game.

 

Tudor paced Shen with 17 points, and Tooley chipped in with 10 points.

 

 

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