Panther girls stun Warwick to win title

By Mike Zummo
Posted 3/6/24

The ball was in Alex Dembinsky’s hand when the final buzzer went off.

She threw the ball in the air, and celebrated as she was rushed by her Wallkill Panther teammates.

It happened.

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Panther girls stun Warwick to win title


The ball was in Alex Dembinsky’s hand when the final buzzer went off.

She threw the ball in the air, and celebrated as she was rushed by her Wallkill Panther teammates.

It happened.

The third-seeded Panthers were three-peat champions after upending the top-seeded Warwick Wildcats, 50-39, on Saturday to win the Section 9 Class AA championship at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley.

“It’s so great,” said Dembinsky, one of five seniors on a relatively young and inexperienced Wallkill team. “I would not want to experience this with any other team.

We worked so hard. We knew we could get to this point, and we knew we could pull it out. It’s just so great.”

There was plenty of reason to wonder if the Panthers had a third-straight championship in them, especially after they fell behind, 7-0, to start the game, and it was one of their freshmen – Gabby Gualtiere – who got them on the board with a layup with 3:44 ate in the first quarter.

It was her only basket of the day, but it was an important one.

The Panthers were able to close the gap to 10-8 by the end of the first quarter and trailed 22-19 at halftime.

“We talked in the locker room,” said Zoe Mesuch, who led the Panthers with a game-high 20 points. “Last year, during the sectional finals, we were also down at half, so we’ve been in the situation before.”

Mesuch gave the Panthers the lead twice I the third quarter, scoring four straight points to give the Panthers a 33-30 lead, but Reese Girardi hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into the fourth quarter tied.

“You run into good teams like that, and they make you play hard, and you better know what you’re doing,” Wallkill coach A.J. Higby said. “We were killing everybody else in our section. Not them. What’s up with that?

They’re that good.”

But in the fourth quarter, the Panthers were better. Even though Siobhan Kelly gave the Wildcats a two-point lead, freshman Aoife Brady knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Panthers a 1-point lead.

“They’re always so hard on themselves,” Dembinsky said. “They get nervous. They never want to ruin the mojo, and our runs. I always tell them, ‘you just have to be confident. You’re never hurting us. You just have to be ‘strong,’ and they’ve come such a long way. I don’t think we would be here without them.”

Dembinsky, who finished with 13 points, broke the tie with a layup, starting an 8-1 run that gave the Panthers a 44-37 lead, their largest of the day.

That was all the Panthers needed as they hit 6 of 8 foul shots down the stretch to ice the game, and their third straight championship.

“It’s unbelievable,” Mesuch said. “I think we had a lot to prove this year. A lot of people didn’t think we would be able to do it. We lost three seniors. I always had confidence in us. I think we worked really hard for it, and I think we deserve it.”

The Panthers opened the tournament with a 62-29 win over No. 2 Valley Central on Thursday and will advance to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class AA regional final on Friday at Mount St. Mary College against the winner of Tuesday’s game between Section 1 champion Albertus Magnus and the Section 4 champion.

“We know we have to face some really tough team, so we have to practice hard,” Dembinsky said. “We have to watch them. We know we’re going to be undersized, but I think if we just work hard and run on teams, we’re going to be really good.”