SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- To some, mostly those that live inside I-495, Springfield, Mass., is known for being a stop along the Massachusetts Turnpike and the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Spend some time around the city, however, and you quickly realize a unique and passionate basketball culture also lives there.
That was on display Friday night when the No. 19 West Springfield and No. 6 Springfield Central girls’ basketball teams squared off at the Hoophall Classic.
Central, the smaller but quicker team of the two, took off and ran its way to a 85-76 victory.
West Side controlled the pace of the game in the first quarter by keeping Central in its half court offense. It spent much of the quarter in a zone defense to try and force Central to make outside shots. Unfortunately for them, the Eagles obliged and were 4-for-8 from three-point range in opening frame.
“Believe it or not, I thought we did a really good job of closing out in the 2-1-2 defense, they were just lights out,” said West Side coach Paul Taylor. “They shot well in the first half particularly.”
It was able to run its offense through Nicky Longey (20 points, 11 rebounds), its senior center who presented a matchup problem for Central. When she was not attacking the basket herself, she was able to create opportunities for her teammates.
Central led 24-21 after one, but really started to play the kind of game it is most comfortable with in the second quarter. A few missed West Side shots created Central fast break opportunities and allowed its guards to get out in space. Most importantly, it did not allow West Side’s defense to get set as it did in the first quarter.
“I think it was more of a mental thing,” said senior Tamar Gervais (18 points). “At first we came out flat and then at halftime our coach talked some sense into us and just said if we want this game then we have to do what we need to do. So we just played defense first and then defense made offense.”
It was more of the same in the third quarter. Central built its lead up to as much as 18 points, but West Side did not go away quietly. When all seemed lost, it began employing a 1-2-1-1 full court press which seemed to put more pressure on whoever had the basketball. Central was ahead 63-48 heading into the fourth, but the momentum was starting to swing in West Side’s favor.
“Our effort and our energy was good,” said Central coach Erik Mauer. “We wanted the pace to be the pace that it was. We feel that one of our strengths is to get in an open court game. We had a little trouble with their pressure at times, but we said there might be a few turnovers they might score baskets off of, but we just have to try and match that with our baskets when they’re in the press.”
The lead was down to single digits midway through the fourth when Central’s Alayah Sweeney (18 points, 14 rebounds) missed a three-pointer and West Side’s Rudi Spano (10 points, 10 rebounds) made two free throws at the other end.
Central answered right back when Sha’raya Haines (7 points) was fouled shooting a three. She made two of three shots and the lead was back up to 10 points. Still, the Terriers did not go away quietly. With 3:30 to go in the game, Phyness Young-Baldwin hit a layup to make it 73-67.
That was as close as West Side would get. Down the stretch, Central converted timely free throws (20-of-39 for the game, 51.3 percent) and came away with the 9-point victory.
“Our concern with running the press is getting into an up-and-down game, and that’s their strength,” said Taylor. We went to it, and it was a bit of a gamble, and it worked. We were within six with four minutes left. We didn’t pack it in.”
Friday night, in the shadow of the Basketball Hall of Fame, two Springfield teams showed what the game has evolved into. They approach the game with different playing styles, but the beauty of it is there is more than one way to win. They will meet again at Central and play with the same grit and determination they showed Friday in the same city where the game began many years ago.
Brown shines: Central’s Ishanna Brown was given the player of the game award, and rightfully so. The sophomore led all scorers with 21 points and also pulled down 9 rebounds. She, along with Gervais, were the two main cogs in the Eagles’ transition attack that won the game for them.
Perhaps most impressively, she was the one with the basketball in her hands with three minutes left in the game. With her team clinging to a lead, she set up along the right baseline and milked as much clock as she could before running the offense. For her to be able to do that as a sophomore showed a level of trust from her coach that all players dream of getting.
"Ishanna is a tremendous talent," Maurer said. "One of the things I think she does such a great job of — she could go out and put up 30 points per game, but she limits that to moments that we need her to score. She's a big-time player. She plays all over the country in big-time events. I know there will be coaches who will be looking for her in a few more years, but I'm very fortunate that I get her for the next two."