Despite being one of the nation’s best, Miami Country Day thought it needed to prove it was the best girls’ basketball team in its own hometown.
Avenging an early-season defeat to Fort Lauderdale Dillard was the only way.
And playing at Madison Square Garden on national TV on Saturday morning made the opportunity even more special.
Led by its forwards Ogechi Anyagaligbo and Michelle Berry, Miami Country Day outplayed Dillard for the majority of a 57-41 victory that secured the championship of the Dick’s Sporting Goods National Invitational.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The Spartans (32-2), ranked No. 7 by USA Today, became the first South Florida team to win the event in either gender since it began in 2009.
“We needed this game because I didn’t like being ranked below Dillard all season and being told they were better than us,” Anyagaligbo said. “We had a bad game the first time and we were able to beat them on a bigger floor, where it mattered the most. And I’m happy about that.”
Anyagaligbo finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds and earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. She and Kelsey Marshall, who had 28 points in the semifinals, made the All-Tournament team.
Berry finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds and both she and Anyagaligbo helped Country Day dominate in the paint, where it outscored Dillard 36-20. The Spartans also got a better performance from star guard Channise Lewis, who finished with a game-high seven assists and seven points, and guard Maria Alvarez, who set the tone with two early three-pointers and finished with eight points.
“It was like [Country Day] played like they had something to prove,” Dillard coach Marcia Pinder said. “The energy they exerted was just phenomenal. I think we just weren’t there mentally and it was a domino effect as the game went on. They deserved to win.”
Dillard (31-2), ranked No. 3 by USA Today, surged ahead of Miami Country Day in most of the national polls after winning the earlier meeting between the teams 66-62 in the MLK Classic on Jan. 17.
Country Day opened the game sharp both shooting and on the defensive end and took the lead for good with a 24-3 run that stretched from Stephanie McKenzie’s layup with 1:52 left in the first quarter to the 1:08 mark of the second quarter, when Dillard’s Destiny Frazier, who also made the All-Tournament team, made a three-pointer.
“I think we got into a comfortable routine once we were up here [in New York],” Miami Country Day coach Ochiel Swaby said. “There was no problem getting the kids up for this game, and if playing at Madison Square Garden isn’t enough motivation, there’s something wrong.”
The Spartans took advantage of the more open-court style of play at Madison Square Garden to run the floor and outscore Dillard 12-2 on fast breaks.
Dillard suffered its first loss to a Florida team in more than a year.
The Panthers, nine-time state champions, still considered the overall experience something positive that should inspire future teams.
“New York is my dream state,” said Dillard star Jacaira Allen, who rebounded from a poor semifinal performance with 11 points and six rebounds. “I never thought I would play at Madison Square Garden. We were supposed to come out with more energy in the second half and play better. We just couldn’t get it done.”
Miami Country Day is expected to rise a bit in USA Today’s final national rankings that will come out Tuesday. But Philadelphia’s undefeated and top-ranked Neumann-Goretti High is a lock to win this year’s mythical national championship.
Still, Swaby said this accomplishment for Country Day and Dillard is something that should help the event and South Florida basketball.
“The state of Florida has a pretty high ceiling of basketball talent, and this may be the motivator for more girls to come out and play,” Swaby said. “Hopefully, the girls will see there is a bigger stage to strive for here at Madison Square Garden.”
MCD (32-2): Anyagaligbo 11, Berry 13, Mackenzie 5, Lewis 7, Marshall 6, Alvarez 8, Austin 3, Edwards 2, Jackson 2. DIL (31-2): Allen 11, Paul 12, Wyatt 7, Parson 6, Frazier 5. Half: MCD 34-21. Three-pointers: Alvarez 2, Berry, Mackenzie, Lewis, Paul, Parson, Frazier. Rebounds: Anyagaligbo, Berry 10. Assists: Lewis 7. Steals: Allen 4. Blocks: Anyagaligbo 6.