WESTFORD, Mass. -- The No. 5 Westford Academy girls’ basketball team proved Friday night it is often the less glamorous aspects of the game that can be the biggest different between victory and defeat.
Behind a strong defensive effort and a willingness to attack the glass at both ends of the floor, it came away with a 70-54 victory over No. 23 Newton South.
Seniors Hannah Hackley (20 points) and Sam Hyslip (19 points) combined for 28 rebounds, which was more than the 21 the entire Newton South (3-3) team amassed in the game. Westford (6-0) as a team finished with 43 total boards.
“Rebounding to me is like scoring to any other player,” said Hyslip. “I don't focus on points, I focus on rebounds. If I’m not rebounding than I’m not having a good game. Hannah probably has a similar mentality. We both just know we’re the ones who need to be low and have our hands up and we always have to get those boards because they’re key. How else are you going to switch from defense to offense or go back up on an offensive board, so I really think we have that mentality down.”
Defensively, Westford made it a point to stop Newton South’s Emily Chang and Jessa Rubera. Chang was on last year’s South team that made a deep run in the state tournament as a 17-seed. She tore her ACL in last year’s semifinal loss and is now sporting a brace on her knee. She showed no effects of the injury Friday night, scoring 16 points including a 3-pointer that was well behind the line.
Rubera finished the game with 21 points, 12 which came from three.
Late in the second quarter, Newton South cut the deficit to 29-28. It took advantage of Westford’s long-range misses to push its offense up the floor and create easy baskets. It tried to work the ball into the post, but with the defense keying in on Sam Hyslip, the most available shots were from the outside. With all the momentum seemingly with South, it became a point in the game where a team’s character was on display. Would Westford tighten up and let South take the lead? Would Westford go back to what was working and assert itself on the backboards? Westford was able to push back and go into halftime with a 38-30 lead.
“People know that Sam is very good, so they’re doing a great job of double-teaming her and sending help over every time she gets the ball,” said Westford coach Russ Coward. “What we sometimes forget is there is a nice mid-range shot there at the top of the free throw line that is wide open because teams try to take away the three and they try to take away the layup down low with Sam. What we talked about at halftime was get Sam up a little higher and have our guards and Hannah try to attack the middle of the lane, which for most teams is going to be soft. When we started attacking that are, I think it opened up a lot of stuff for everybody.”
South was able to get the lead Westford lead back down to four points in the third quarter off its timely three-point shooting. However, it could never overcome the deficit.
Entrapment: In the first quarter, Westford amped up its defensive pressure with a 1-2-1-1 full court press. It let South inbound the ball in the corners, and then two players quickly converged on the ball handler. South wanted to break the press by inbounding the ball to the middle of the floor and then passing it to the wing and having its wing players work the ball up the floor, but the Grey Ghosts did their best to take that option away and force the ball to go to the corners.
As the South players tried to pass out of the double team, the defenders would often slap the ball away or a help defender would be around to steal possession away.
Over the course of the game, South found ways to get the ball to its bigs, which allowed it to execute its press break the way it intended to. That forced Westford out of its system and into less pressure-based defenses.
“We’re so used to attacking and sometimes we don’t play as smart as we need to on defense,” said Coward. “When they’re passing the ball to their big kids, we don’t need to trap their big kids, we need to keep it away from Jessa Rubera and Emily Chang. We don’t want them with the ball, we want the big kids with the ball and try to steal the pass from them.”
Wakeup call: Two weeks ago, Westford beat, defending Division 1 State Champion Central Catholic in the finals of the Commonwealth Motors Classic. That win helped build the confidence of the team and set the course for the last two months of the regular season. However, after the game Friday, Coward said he felt his team might have came into the game “thinking we were probably a little better than we actually are, and it was nice to get smacked and kind of get a wakeup call here.”
Hackley acknowledged the importance of the Central win as a building block early in the season, but also agreed with her coach that the team was not where it could have been mentally coming into the game.
“We try not to take any games easy and we work really hard in practice,” she said. “We keep saying, even after we beat Central, ‘This isn’t the end, this is only the fourth game of the season. We have a lot more goals to reach.’ We didn’t come into the game not focused, but I think not as sharp as we needed to.
"We definitely learned from this, and I think it’s important to see and to have that confidence that even though we were able to get out of a close game, that should not happen because as we get into the playoffs it is not going to be easy to climb out of holes like that.”