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Mary Louis wins emotional semifinal for coach

Just about every Mary Louis player did her part Saturday. Whether it was Karin Robinson’s fearless drives, Jackie Kresse and Kelly McNamee’s three-point shooting, the rebounding of Reana Mohamed and Avis Benjamin, Camille Romero’s steadiness or Christy Calderon’s game-sealing steal and free throws, Coach Joe Lewinger called it the Hilltoppers’ most complete performance of the season.

But when Mary Louis met in a second-floor classroom after the thrilling 63-62 win over Bishop Ford in the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens Division I semifinals at Archbishop Molloy, it wasn’t any of the players getting an ovation by her teammates.

It was Lewinger.

“This,” he said, “is one of the best memories I’ll ever have.”

Three days ago, Lewinger and his wife, Maura, got some terrible news. Their 4-year-old daughter, Madison, had a second relapse of the cancer she has been fighting for two years. A biopsy showed a nodule on her lung was malignant.

Lewinger said if Madison even needed a biopsy, he wasn’t sure when he’d be back coaching. But Maura told him to go to the game, to guide his team in its quest for a Brooklyn/Queens title.

“She said, ‘You live every day as much as you can,’” Lewinger said. “That’s what we have to do now — live every moment. She said, ‘It could be a nice evening for you.’”

Maura could not have been more right. Mary Louis (18-6), which plays Christ the King in the finals Tuesday at St. John’s Prep, played inspired basketball throughout. The Hilltoppers led the whole first half and answered every run Bishop Ford (20-5) made.

Kresse (12 points) hit a three-pointer in the third quarter to put her team ahead. She hit another when TMLA went down 50-47 and drilled another right after to give Mary Louis a 53-50 lead with 5:28 left.

“We all wanted this for Mr. Lewinger and Madison,” Kresse said. “It was amazing. I just wanted to put a smile on Mr. Lewinger’s face.”

TMLA’s odds of winning were reduced greatly just a few seconds after Kresse’s second three. With 5:08 left in the game, Robinson, the team’s star junior guard, fouled out. Ford went ahead 56-55 on a Vanessa D’Ambrosi basket with 3:47 left and the Falcons held the lead until there was under a minute left.

“It was killing me,” Robinson (16 points) said. “All I could do was cheer and that’s exactly what I did.”

She had plenty to cheer for. A Romero driving layup got Mary Louis within 60-59 with 1:31 left and a Mohamed free throw drew the Hilltoppers even with 59.3 on the clock. But Diani Mason made a pair of foul shots and TMLA turned it over with 34 seconds left.

Winning was going to be an uphill climb until Ford gave it right back and Calderon got fouled, going to the line for two. She missed the first and made the second, but Mary Louis was still down 62-61 with 23.7 seconds left.

Calderon didn’t put her head down, though. She followed Ford up the court in TMLA’s press and stripped the ball, with a little help by Mohamed, from Falcons junior guard Anjali Moncrieffe. Calderon went right to the basket and was fouled again.

“I felt in a way that I was going to make them and we were gonna win,” she said. “Because I got a second chance.”

Sure enough, Calderon made both with 14.6 seconds left and a three-pointer by Ford’s Cynthia Montano went long. Mary Louis players mobbed Calderon at halfcourt.

“She didn’t hang her head,” Kresse said. “She came right back and stole the ball. That’s what Christy does.”

Lewinger was overwhelmed emotionally after the game, especially when he walked into the classroom.

“If this is a dark storm, one that’s been in my life for two years, then this is that slim day break that reminds you how great things can be,” Lewinger said. “They didn’t clap for each other — they clapped for me.”

The coach said he hopes he can be at St. John’s Prep for the CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens championship game. Lewinger has never won a diocesan title in his decade on the bench at the Jamaica Estates school.

“This is your first gift,” Assistant Coach Kevin White told him. “We’re hoping to get you another one.”

Reach Marc Raimondi at mraimondi@nypost.com.

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