- Brendan C. Hall, ESPN Staff Writer
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- A year ago this weekend, in its first foray into the loaded Hoophall Classic, Braintree's young budding stars made a statement, throwing figurative haymakers at Springfield (Ore.) and the nation's No. 1 overall player, 6-foot-5 center Mercedes Russell, in an eventual nine-point loss.
Tonight, they came in a year wiser, less wide-eyed. But the end result was the same, a 69-52 loss to Queens, N.Y. powerhouse Christ The King in which they had no answer for Duke-bound guard Sierra Calhoun (30 points, six rebounds) and Siena-bound forward Kollyns Scarborough (21 points, 14 rebounds).
Still, the Wamps -- currently ranked No. 1 in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll -- came away with similar sentiments of confidence as they head back east.
"The nicer thing this time around is we felt like we could come in and play our own game, that we didn’t have to change our philosophy based on a 6-7 girl," Wamps head coach Kristen McDonnell said. "But we knew this was a challenge for us, and it was gonna be a big test. We came out competitive, battled the whole time.
"I just think there’s so many positives to come out of playing a team like this, with players at that high level, it highlights what we need to work on more than playing some of these other teams."
The Wamps (8-1) came out of the gates with purpose, going toe to toe with the Royals in the opening minutes. Molly Reagan (11 points) put back an errant three-point attempt by Ashley Russell (13 points, six rebounds), then tied it at 7-7 off a great dish from Bridget Herlihy (12 points, six rebounds). When Calhoun came back the other way with her second of four 3-pointers on the night, Russell followed up with another counterpunch.
Russell missed another three in the corner to start off the possession, but Brianna Herlihy (15 points, seven rebounds) came down with the board and kicked it back out to Russell up top. Russell pulled up for a jumper and missed again, but came down with her own rebound and drew a foul on the way up, sinking both free throws to close the gap to 10-9.
The Royals closed the quarter on a 9-4 run, then widened the gap in the second to take a 39-23 lead into the break. Scarborough put back her own missed layup to start the quarter, followed by an effortless bank three by Calhoun then another Scarborough basket, off a well-thread pass in transition from Deja Johnston, to make it 26-13. From there, the Wamps were never able to close the gap back to single-digits, holding their own on the defensive end but unable to keep up in transition.
Christ The King held a 37-32 advantage on the glass and shot 46 percent from the floor, while Braintree finished up shooting 37.3 percent after a forgettable first half from the floor (8-for-26). Christ The King committed 26 turnovers, to just 21 from Braintree; the Wamps also held a 13-9 advantage in steals.
High praise for Russell: McDonnell was asked about a moment in the third quarter when Russell dove into the press table, head first, going after a loose ball. As usual when talking about her dogged floor general, it brought a wide smile to the coach's face.
"I love this kid. Honestly, she’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen on any team," McDonnell said. "The kid never quits ever. She is so tough. Whatever college gets her is going to be very lucky."
Down the hallway, Christ The King coach Bob Mackey had even stronger praise for the 5-foot-9 junior, who is drawing a scattering of interest across Divisions 1 and 2.
"That kid can play for me any day of the week -- twice on Sunday. That kid’s got a game," Mackey exclaimed. "It’s a mistake if somebody’s not recruiting that child, because she can play. She works hard, she’s the kinda kid that makes coaches look good, and she makes her teammates look good too.
"She can do so many things, she’s left she’s right shes all over the place, she gets to the rim she can knock down a jump shot, and she doesn’t stop. She wore through…we had three different kids guarding her in the game. One kid did a good job on her, came off the bench and did a really nice job, but it’s tough. She’s a good player."
Even was Mackey was broached on different subjects, such as matching up with Reagan and her unique high-low game, the conversation ended up drifting back to Russell's inspiring grit.
"I was impressed, I was really impressed with [Russell], seriously," he continued. "[Brianna Herlihy] got Player of the Game? My player is [Russell]. She got them going, she is the engine."