Lined up on the parquet floor at the TD Garden for the trophy ceremony of the Division 4 state championship game on Monday afternoon, Cadejia Matthews buried her face in her neon yellow warmup shirt and her head into the embrace of a teammate.
The 5-foot-5-inch junior guard with braids and braces could finally exhale after helping Fenway High win its second straight state title against Greater New Bedford, 56-47.
The victory came just two days after her 47-year-old stepfather, Robert Summers, died of a heart attack on Saturday, hours before she hit a pair of crucial free throws in the Division 4 North sectional final that helped send the Panthers to Monday’s state title bout.
“Some of me still feels hurt but some of me feels a little relieved,” she said after scoring a game-high 15 points on Monday. “I did this for my father and I did it for my team and my seniors. It’s kind of both ways. I’m still thinking about him because he’s supposed to be at this game today but sadly he wasn’t.
“I was just thinking that he could’ve been here seeing me play, because he was here last year and we won. He was spiritually with me. That’s what made me tear up. I felt him with me while I was playing.”
Matthews said Summers was taking his medication in the kitchen around lunchtime on Saturday when he started screaming to her mother, Carolyn Matthews, that he couldn’t breathe. Matthews said her mother called 911, but Summers was screaming so loudly that the operator couldn’t understand her mother.
“So I called 911 and I was like ‘We need an ambulance,’” she said. “His medicine pump wasn’t working, so when he fell to the floor on his knees me and my mom were trying to call his name but I saw his eyes roll back and I knew he was gone.”
Matthews said the whole episode took five minutes.
She said a funeral has yet to be planned.
“He was an amazing guy, he did everything for me, he would always be at my games,” she said. “When I had troubles with my mom he would be the one talking to me. School-wise, he was always on me to get honor roll.
“He just always took care of me just like a regular father would do.”
The whole family was planning to go to Fenway’s game against Whittier that night and Matthews said they maintained their plans to try to keep up their spirits.
Mathews said she never considered not playing on Saturday. But playing is one thing. Hitting a pair of free throws with 19 seconds left to make it a two-possession game is another.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she’s doing this,” Fenway headmaster Peggy Kemp said Monday. “I’m sure it’s really difficult for her, but given the fact that she’s really assumed a big leadership role I’m not surprised that she’s deciding to play. And it is her choice.
“I think she’s using basketball — something that she cares about, something that she’s disciplined in — to keep herself focused.”
Matthews also came up clutch in Fenway’s first state championship last year, scoring 10 points in the final quarter to help erase a 5-point deficit.
On Monday, she got off to a rocky start. After grabbing the opening tip, she tossed a pass out of bounds. She quickly rebounded, hitting a 3-pointer before putting in a layup to put Fenway up 9-3 with 4:16 to play in the first quarter.
In the third quarter she hit two 3-pointers, including banking one that she launched from a foot behind the NBA 3-point line as the clock wound down.
“I’m thinking it’s going to air ball and I see it going higher and higher and I’m like ‘that’s going to go in,’ she said. “I was like ‘wow.’ That’s my first actual shot from the NBA line. I thought I was much closer but then I looked and I was like ‘I’m way back here.’”
After the trophy ceremony Matthews climbed halfway up the steps of the Garden’s lower bowl to find her mother and brother.
“It was hard because I knew he wanted to come,” she said. “I knew he wanted to see me win. My heart was just broken just to see just my mom there, my brother. I gave my mom a hug. I told her I love her and I gave her a kiss.
“I played my heart out for him knowing he was still looking down on me. I just wanted to give him another win, give my teammates another win. Give me another win, give my seniors another win.”
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