During the first week in December, coach Bob Simeone took his North Kingstown girls’ basketball team to Connecticut for a scrimmage against Fitch High.
“We stayed in a hotel, spent time in a conference room and put up goals,” said Simeone. “We wanted to win the [Division 1 South] title, the state title and put a number on the board because the last time we won the state title was in 2005.
“We had 25 different goals. Number one was ‘We versus me.’ We don’t care who scores. It’s all about ‘we.’ In every locker room, we taped goals to the wall. We made the girls write them down.”
The Skippers ended La Salle Academy’s stranglehold on the Division I state championship (the Rams had won the last three state titles while North Kingstown only had annexed three in program history prior to this season) by beating the Rams, 52-49, in the semifinals and Barrington, 41-39, in the finals.
“Prior to playing La Salle, we hadn’t played for a week,” recalled Simeone. “I sent the girls a text message prior to the La Salle game that said ‘out-play, out-hustle, out-rebound and live the dream.’ They went out and played a phenomenal game.
“Prior to playing Barrington, we practiced, went to a press conference and there was a lot of mentoring. They were built up into this hype but we were keeping it low. On [last] Friday night, I sent them another text that said ‘out-hustle, out-score and get to every 50-50 ball. Live the dream and make it a reality.’ “
The dream became a reality when tournament MVP Taylor Buckley scored a game-high 22 points including the game-winning basket with 10 ticks of the clock remaining.
What enabled the Skippers (23-2) to capture the division and state championships was their inclination to play defense and a balanced scoring attack.
During the course of the season including the playoffs, North Kingstown averaged 64.8 points per game and allowed an average of only 39.8. In addition, the Skippers pulled down an average of 32.8 rebounds per game and averaged 5.7 blocked shots.
“What we said was offense sells tickets and defense wins championships,” said Simeone. “We practiced defense every day so teams were going to be afraid to play us.
“We run a man-to-man shell drill. There are five positions on the floor and we play man-to-man 99 percent of each game. A lot of our points came off pressing and playing defense. We’re known as a team that plays defense. That’s the way the team was built.”
Buckley was the only Skipper who scored in double figures. In fact, she averaged a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds per game.
The Skippers’ balanced offense was reflected by the fact Allie Barton averaged 9.8 points per game, Brenna Coppola averaged 7.2, Kristjana McCarthy had 6.2 and Amanda Bednarick chipped in 5.9.
“We got a lot of points off transition and scored a lot off half-court sets,” said Simeone. “We could have scored more if we weren’t blowing out teams and sat starters in the second half.
“The offensive power of the team was greater than what it showed on paper.”
Barton, an All-Tournament Team selection, played virtually the entire season in pain due to an injured foot.
“Allie was the heart and soul of the team,” said Simeone. “She played on a broken foot against Barrington. She limped during timeouts.
“She opted not to have surgery (earlier in the season) because she wanted to play.”
Because La Salle had captured 10 of the last 15 Division I state championships, it would have been understandable if the Skippers began the season with modest expectations.
“Our expectation prior to tryouts was we knew we had a veteran team (Buckley, McCarthy and Barton are seniors) coming back plus three junior guards (Molly Feid, Coppola and Bednarick),” said Simeone. “Our expectations were high. As far as winning the state title, it depended on how they bonded together.
“The expectations were we felt we had a team that could contend for a state title but would have to go through Bay View and La Salle.”
When the Skippers beat the Rams, 52-44 on Feb. 6, it put a completely different perspective on what might transpire during the tournament.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Simeone. “We felt if we could compete against La Salle and beat them we had a chance. Over the last three years, our team was talented enough to beat them but didn’t believe they could do it.
“When we beat La Salle, you saw a spark in their eyes. From then on, we won our last 11 games to win the state championship.”
Theoretically, Buckley was the last piece of the proverbial puzzle because she transferred to North Kingstown after playing the last three seasons at Exeter/West Greenwich.
“I didn’t even know she was transferring,” said Simeone. “Somebody called me and told me. I said she’s going to have to buy into our system. The system wasn’t going to change for her. She had to change for the system which was ‘we’ and not ‘me.’
“Somebody said I won the lottery. But try implanting a star from another team and it takes time. Once she got here, she believed in the system.”
Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y, he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.