By Jason Butynski
Special to The Eagle
ATHOL >> It didn't look like it was going to be too tough a night for Mount Greylock on Monday night.
The ninth-seeded Mounties built a 17-point second-half lead but saw the entire thing evaporate, as eighth-seeded Athol stormed back to tie the game in the fourth quarter. The Red Raiders were never able to take the lead, however, and Mount Greylock regained its composure and went on to punch its ticket to top-seeded South Hadley High School with a 52-43 victory in the first round of the Western Mass. Division III girls' basketball tournament at Mallet Gymnasium.
The Mounties (14-7) used a big second-quarter effort to lead by 11 entering the second half and then pushed the lead to 17 when Lauren Howard (11 points) hit a 3-pointer with just over five minutes to play in the third quarter. But fouls finally began to catch up to the visitors, as center Jenna Benzinger joined point guard Arianna Walden and forward Jacqueline Byrnes on the bench with foul trouble.
That allowed the Red Raiders to storm back. Athol switched to a full-court press defense and it sparked what had been a stagnant offense to that point. The Red Raiders (12-9) went on a 15-2 run over the final 5 minutes of the third quarter to cut the deficit to 39-35 entering the fourth. Hope Parker (16 points) hit a pair of 3-pointers during that run, including one at the buzzer. The momentum carried over into the fourth quarter, and a pair of free throws by Parker tied the game at 39-39 with 6 minutes, 53 seconds left.
But Mount Greylock never fully broke, stepping up on defense to halt the Red Raiders in their tracks. Benzinger, the 6-foot-4 junior center, became a force inside, and Athol struggled to penetrate. The center also broke the tie with a putback with 5:26 left to put the Mounties ahead for good. The game remained close over the next four minutes, with both defenses playing tough. A steal at midcourt by Athol's Julia Carey and subsequent layup cut the deficit to 45-43 with 1:10 left, but the smallest player on the court — Mount Greylock guard Caroline Flynn — came up with perhaps the biggest basket of the night when she broke free of her defender on a backdoor cut and laid the ball in through traffic to give Greylock a four-point cushion. The Mounties then hit 5-of-8 free throws down the stretch to put the game away.
"I've been coaching basketball a long time and I think the key was that Athol never took the lead," Mount Greylock coach John Jacobbe said. "They had a couple chances to take the lead and we were able to play good defense. We've been in a lot of close games, this was the first close game down in the final minutes where we had to come up big, but we made our free throws, we made a couple big hoops, and I thought our defense played very well when we weren't fouling."
Mount Greylock moves on to play the No. 1 seed Tigers Thursday night at 7 p.m. in South Hadley.
Athol coach Dan Bevis said he was proud of his girls' no-quit attitude, but thought that with a bench that doesn't run too deep, it just took too much energy for his team to finish off the comeback.
"I just said to the girls, we were down 17 and we didn't give up, we didn't quit," Athol coach Dan Bevis said. "That comeback took a lot out of us, we expended a lot of energy, and I think we just ran out of gas. ... You may have some people say that we should have pressed them all game, but we couldn't press them all game. It was just in desperation those last 10-plus minutes, and I think we did some good things. We put ourselves in a position to win, and that's all you can ask for."
Athol left a number of points off the board as the Red Raiders struggled to shoot free throws (18-of-31) and also missed numerous chances in the paint, many the result of Benzinger, who blocked the first two Athol shots of the night and finished with 6 blocked shots, and countless others that missed due to her presence.
The first quarter was a bit stale for both offenses, with Athol managing to take a 8-7 lead into the second quarter. Mount Greylock got the offense going in the second quarter, outscoring Athol 20-8 in the frame to take the 11-point lead into the break. Walden had a huge quarter for the Mounties, drilling two 3s and scoring 11 of her game-high 18 points in the frame.
Benzinger finished with 16 points in the win.
Emily Casella netted 15 points for Athol in the final game of her career, Carey added 5 points, and Kayle Robideau and Callie Jillson each netted 3 points in their final games.
MOUNT GREYLOCK (52)
Walden 5-5-18, Benzinger 6-4-16, Howard 4-1-11, Flynn 2-0-4, Stripp 1-0-3, Byrnes 0-0-0, Albert 0-0-0, Voller 0-0-0. Totals 18-10-52.
Parker 2-10-16, Casella 5-5-15, Carey 2-1-5, Jillson 1-1-3, Robideau 1-0-3, Hamlett 0-1-1, Leadbetter 0-0-0. Totals 11-18-43.
3-point goals — MG 6 (Walden 3, Howard 2, Stripp), A 3 (Parker 2, Robideau.)