No. 5 Pittsfield girls fall to No. 1 Northampton in Western Mass. Division II semifinals

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SPRINGFIELD — In the locker room following Monday night's loss, Pittsfield coach Joe Racicot told his players that this was their new reality. The Generals may have been the defending champions, but the Northampton program that had just eliminated them from the Western Massachusetts Division II tournament is now the standard that PHS will have to strive for.

After reclassifying out of Division I last offseason, the Blue Devils earned the No. 1 seed in the D-II tournament. Their first playoff game since being the only team to come within single digits of beating D-I state champion Springfield Central last season — a nine-point loss in the D-I Western Mass. semis — was a 53-44 win over Pittsfield at Western New England University Monday night.

The No. 5 Generals knew after a season-opening loss to Northampton back under the dome where their season would come to a crossroads, and Racicot's crew nearly pulled one out. Pittsfield looked a lot more comfortable with the Blue Devils than it did in that mid-December game, even taking an early lead and holding it into the second quarter. Eventually, though, Northampton's size and scoring depth caught up and the top-seed muscled its way in front, where it would remain through the final buzzer.

"They're a very aggressive team, more so than we see regularly. To have that intensity in the game, it makes us raise our aggression," said senior captain Bella Aitken. "They definitely shifted some stuff up. We were playing good man-to-man, but sometimes they'd beat a man and then we'd be scrambling to find the defense."

The Generals got 14 points from Taea Bramer, but the Blue Devils defense focused fully on swallowing up top scorers Aitken and Lexi Garvey. Neither of the Generals' primary options saw an abundance of clean looks. Northampton kept Pittsfield uncomfortable and forced the Generals to play different styles and combinations than they are accustomed to.

With the offense faltering after an 11-7 first-quarter advantage disappeared, the Generals turned to their defense to keep pace. Natasha Shade played the majority of the game, and was on the floor nonstop well into the second quarter shadowing Amanda Mieczkowski. With Garvey playing with clean verticality in the paint and Shade patrolling the perimeter, Northampton was never able to pull fully away.

"Mostly they make us switch up our defense a lot. Coach wants me on their best scorer, but in transition they have so many different scorers, it makes it tough," said Shade. "It's hard against a bigger school like that that has more players who can score. We have to transition into that."

Mieczkowski and top-scorer Emma Tanner did get theirs eventually, combining for 27 points, but they were hard to come by. Despite the ice-cold Generals only getting a layup from Kendra Buda and single foul shot in the second, they trailed by just six at halftime.

"[Mieczkowski] is a good all-around player. We were hoping to get a few more open looks, but that didn't happen and we just didn't shoot well," said Racicot.

"Defensively, we tried something different in the beginning which worked a little, but they did a good job getting her open. Second quarter it kind of got old and the teams leveled out a little bit."

Racicot tried mixing things up, getting reserve bigs Kendra Castagna and Britney Perkett minutes alongside Garvey, and reaching deep into his bench. Still, the Blue Devils pulled their lead into the teens. Bramer heated up just when she needed to. Working off of Shade's passes, the sophomore scored seven straight to keep PHS in the game. Ultimately, the six-point deficit became seven with eight minutes remaining.

Tanner scored six of her 12 in the fourth, helping bust the lead back out to double digits. Pittsfield did have opportunities, though. Aitken sank a pair of free throws to make it 45-35, and Jordyn Lummus then stole back possession. But, a Pittsfield turnover followed, along with an Anna Kerwood jumper. Inside two minutes to play, Aitken canned a 3-pointer and Bramer got a runner to go, cutting the deficit to five. However, Kerwood, Claire Babbot-Bryan and Bailey Maurer, all seniors, put down two foul shots each down the stretch to close out Pittsfield's season.

"It was really back-and-forth, and we competed with them. I think maybe we got a little tired or a little lazy at times, though," said Shade. "We still had our shots, but some weren't falling and they just beat us out."

The Generals (14-8) will graduate just two seniors in Aitken and Perkett, and return four starters.

"I'm definitely going to remember this forever," Aitken said. "It was a wonderful season, and I'm happy with the way things went."

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PITTSFIELD (44)

Sondrini 0-0-0, Curry 0-0-0, Shade 3-0-7, Castagna 0-0-0, Bramer 6-0-14, Perkett 1-0-2, Aitken 3-3-11, Buda 1-0-2, Garvey 3-1-7, Shaver 0-0-0, Lummus 1-0-2. Totals 18-4-44.

NORTHAMPTON (53)

McGrath 1-0-2, Mieczkowski 7-1-15, Tanner 5-2-12, Babbot-Bryan 2-5-9, Kerwood 1-2-4, Maurer 1-0-2, Jones 1-5-7, Lewandowski 1-0-2. Totals 19-15-53.

Pittsfield     11     3     14     16          44

Northampton     7     13     15     18          53

3-point goals — P 4 (Bramer 2, Shade, Aitken).

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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