WEST PORTSMOUTH — In the game of basketball, it’s always nice to see the flash and pizzaz that strong offensive play showcases.
But when a game is decided in the final few minutes, that said contest will always come down to two things: defensive stops and free throws.
That very message was certainly on display in a Monday evening matchup between two SOC programs, as the SOC II West Senators’ girls basketball program overcame a 12-0 third-quarter spurt by the SOC I Green Lady ‘Cats by hitting 21 of its 34 free throws and holding Green to seven fourth-quarter points in a hard-fought 42-35 victory on Monday evening in West Portsmouth.
For Jason Claytor, the positive result simply came about because of West’s refuse-to-quit attitude — even without their best all-around talent in MaKayla White.
“We battled,” Claytor said. “That’s the first win that we’ve had a chance to get this year without MaKayla out there, so that was big for these girls. Now, they know that they can win a game without her. I’ve been trying to tell them that we can, but sometimes, it takes one of these games to show that you can do so. This win was big for us. We kept battling.”
However, while free throws weren’t as fruitful for Melissa Knapp’s group, the Lady ‘Cats had plenty of fight in them, as well.
“We missed 11 free throws, at least,” Knapp said. “Free throws were a huge difference in the end result. But my team played hard. They are getting better every game, too. It’s unreal how far we’ve come since we’ve played West in the SOC Previews. I’m pretty sure we lost by 20 or 30 in previews to West, so we’ve come a long way. But we’ve got to hit those free throws. They’re important.”
Over the first several minutes of the affair, West’s on-ball defensive pressure allowed the Lady Senators to establish a 6-0 lead behind the play of Morgan Rigsby, Emily Sissel, and Jordyn Swords, who were active throughout the evening on both ends of the floor.
However, when Kame Sweeney got Green on the scoreboard with 4:32 to play in the opening quarter of action, the play of the 5-10 freshman kickstarted a 6-0 run for the Lady ‘Cats — that was capped from a three by Megan Johnson — to tie the score before West ultimately pulled back ahead by nailing six consecutive free throws and holding Sweeney without a field goal during the opening quarter of action en route to an 8-2 spurt to end the first quarter.
“We wanted to front the post,” Claytor said. “We came out early and we knew that it was going to be about pounding the ball inside and pounding the ball inside some more. We did a good job with it until later on in the game, when we got into some foul trouble. At that point, we kind of had to be a little bit more tentative as to how we guarded the post.”
West, however, was just getting warmed up from the field. Behind a three-pointer from Mackenzie Boggs, the third of six baskets from Rigsby on the evening, and excellent on-ball defense from Swords — who finished with six steals — in the backcourt, the Lady Senators put together an 8-0 run that ultimately led to West establishing its largest lead of the contest, 22-10, with just under three minutes to play in the first half.
“We came out early, and our on-ball pressure was really good,” Claytor said. “Jordyn’s defense was just phenomenal in the first half, I mean phenomenal.”
“There are certain situations where we just need more game experience,” Knapp said. “For example, we were playing a box-and-one on (Jordyn Swords). We knew that she could shoot from the SOC Previews and from the junior varsity game tonight, so we went to a box-and-one on her, and I thought that we did an excellent job. We kept switching off when it was needed. However, Jason made an excellent move by telling his girls to sit there and hold it. When they did that, I tried to tell the girls to match up, but they didn’t get what I was saying. Little things like that come down to inexperience. That’s all it is.”
Green, however, didn’t fall into oblivion. As a matter of fact, the Lady ‘Cats managed to get their focal point of the offense — Sweeney — more involved. The freshman standout scored four of Green’s six points in a 6-0 run that allowed the Lady ‘Cats to close within 22-16 at halftime.
Then, when West extended the lead to a 26-16 advantage behind Sissel’s and-one in traffic, Sweeney responded by going to work inside, scoring eight points during the 12-0 spurt that ultimately allowed Green to take a 28-26 advantage with 1:11 to play behind a Leslie Gallion jumpshot that rolled in before West tied the score with two free throws from Sissel. Sweeney ultimately finished with a game-high 21 points for the Lady ‘Cats.
“Kame’s averaging a double-double,” Knapp said. “We struggle to get her the basketball sometimes, and I believe that she makes some mistakes sometimes as a freshman from time to time, but I can’t really complain. She’s really come on strong this year. Her strength is outstanding. She’s not built like a freshman. I’m glad to see her have another good game.”
“(Sweeney) is a nice player,” Claytor said. “She’s only a freshman and is going to be a good one over the next few years. It’s a piece that Green can build around, for sure.”
In the fourth quarter, however, Rigsby and Sissel took matters into their own hands. After fighting inside to score a quarter-opening bucket, Rigsby alertly forced a trap in the far corner that forced Green into a turnover, which led to another basket from the 5-8 sophomore to give West a 32-28 lead. Sweeney scored inside on the following possession to cut the West lead to 32-30, but the sophomore duo responded by hitting seven of their 10 free throws — with Sissel hitting four on her own — to close the book on the affair.
For the contest, Rigsby put together another gargantuan outing with 18 points and 21 rebounds, while Sissel nailed 12 of her 15 free throws to not only go 80 percent from the charity stripe, but obtain 16 points in the process.
“It took a little while to get Morgan going, and to get her playing aggressively,” Claytor said. “I told her, ‘You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to put the ball in the hole.’ Once she started doing that, she could get into the lane just about whenever she wanted and get to the rim. As for Emily, she played arguably the most controlled game that she’s played all year long. She looked, at times, like a point guard tonight. We’re trying to teach her to play that position, and she looked the part. She took control, shot really well from the free throw line, and was patient when we were trying to run time off of the clock and let stuff develop a little bit. Those two set the tone for us.”
With the victory, West improved to 5-13 overall on the year. The Lady Senators will look to continue to establish momentum when West travels to Waverly to finish off the SOC II portion of its schedule on Thursday evening before closing the regular season with a home bout against Symmes Valley on Monday evening as West will look to gain additional experience for its girls before the return of White, which is expected to be by the start of postseason play on Feb. 12.
“Getting this win without MaKayla shows the girls that they can win games without her,” Claytor said. “When you put her back out there, it’s going to make us even better.”
As for Knapp, the loss, which dropped Green to 5-14 on the year, doesn’t take anything away from the Lady ‘Cats, who have shown tremendous growth throughout the season in its affairs.
“I hate that the season is coming to a close,” Knapp said. “We’re just now starting to click. I’m super worried about snow. We’ve got two conference games left with Eastern and Symmes Valley, then we’ve got to make up our contest with Rose Hill, so we want to make sure that we finish the season with all of our games. That becomes a concern at this point.”
And with those games looming, Green wants to make sure that it finishes strong in honor of their leader and lone senior.
“We want to finish strong for Leslie,” Knapp said. “She’s been an excellent leader for us.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT