Mercier, Mendel power Hoosac Valley girls basketball back to MIAA D-III state final
SPRINGFIELD — The Hoosac Valley girls basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar position last year, as the team sat at home during the MIAA Division III state finals.
Back in the state semifinals this year, the Hurricanes made sure that there would be no leisure time to be had this Saturday.
Playing against Central Massachusetts champion Millis on Tuesday at American International College, Hoosac Valley turned a single-digit lead at the half into a double-digit one after three quarters, then kicked the gears into overdrive in the fourth to post a commanding 63-42 win. The Hurricanes are now set to make their fifth state finals appearance in the last six years.
"It feels great [to win tonight]," Hoosac senior Lexi Mercier said. "We've worked harder and harder to get back here, and I think we did a great job of it.
"Now, we're going to states on Saturday, which I think everyone is excited for — but especially me and Alie [Mendel]."
Hoosac will play the winner of St. Mary's (Lynn) and Archbishop Williams in the state finals on Saturday, at a time and location to be announced. The other state semifinal is being played today, and the MIAA will release the championship schedule after all semifinal games have been concluded.
Mercier and her senior classmate combined to put up 43 points in the win — one more point than Millis managed — with Mendel scoring 13 of her 21 points in the first half, while Mercier lit up the second half with 17 of her game-high 22 points. The two also combined to make seven 3-pointers — two more than Millis managed as a team.
"We push each other to work harder every day, and we just want to get each other better to get the team better," Mercier said. "I think not being here last year, really fueled me and her to want to get back to states."
But like any good team, this was not a one or two-woman band. In the state semifinals, Averie McGrath came off the bench to provide relief in the second half when starting center Sarah Field got in foul trouble. The freshman responded in a big way, canning a pair of treys — the second of which put the team up 49-34 and all but snuffed the life out of the game.
"Their center was hanging in to take away our drives, so with Sarah in foul trouble I told Averie `step up, you're going to have to hit shots,'" said Hoosac coach Ron Wojcik. "And she did, she knocked down a couple big shots for us."
McGrath, meanwhile, had to battle her nerves before getting in on the action.
"I felt very nervous first going in, but with the support from my team, the bench and my captains all makes it better to get the momentum going," McGrath said.
How did she know when things were going well?
"It feels really great, when you're just running down the court and Riley Robinson gives you a thumbs-up — it means you did good."
Robinson scored seven points herself, and did a little bit of everything to keep the team moving. Shaleigh Levesque had six rebounds, four points and two steals in the win. Mercier finished with five rebounds, four steals and two blocks, while Mendel had four dimes and a pair of steals.
Hoosac opened the game like they were going to blow the Mohawks away. After Meghan Cullen got the scoring started, Hoosac rattled off 10 straight points, with Mendel hitting a pair of treys in the stretch. Millis took a timeout, and that woke the team up some.
The Mohawks trimmed the deficit to 13-9 when Courtney Bickford scored on a putback, but before the quarter ended Robinson drove the lane, split the defense and scored at the rim to make it 15-9 after eight minutes.
"They are a good team," Millis coach Dave Fallon said. "I love their pressure defense, I love how scrappy they are. In a lot of ways, they remind me of my own team — I just think they did it a little better tonight."
The second quarter wasn't the prettiest period for either side. Hoosac outscored Millis 11-9 in the quarter, but the Mohawks had the score at 20-18 after Abby Miller (team-high 12 points) scored on a wild finish through traffic.
Hoosac, though, responded by ending the half with threes from Mendel — after Mercier recorded a steal and fed her classmate for the bucket — and Annie Canales to go up 26-18 at the break.
"We got locked in on defense a couple of times on a couple of possessions back-to-back, then scored another hoop or two and went up eight after the second quarter," Wojcik said, "which was good after they made the run. I wasn't really happy with where we were defensively at halftime, so we looked at that, and I think they played a much better second half."
Millis trimmed the deficit back down to six twice to open the third quarter, including a bucket by Cullen to make it 28-22. Hoosac, though, countered with one of its patented runs, cranking up the defensive pressure and turning it into scoring with a 9-1 run capped when Mendel stole the ball, then finished the other way to make it 37-23.
"I think our defense triggered our successful offensive night," Mendel said. "We put a lot of ball pressure on them and I think it made them a little nervous and forced a lot of turnovers."
Millis had 21 turnovers on the night. After three, Hoosac led 43-29.
McGrath's first three answered a Millis triple from Miller. Millis got a bucket from Eryn Rice (9 points) to make it 46-34 after the first McGrath trey, but the freshman answered again with another to make it 49-34. On the ensuing possession, Levesque recorded a steal and Mercier finished at the rack to put the game out of reach for good.
"It was great to see her step out of her comfort zone and knock down some big threes for us," Mendel said of McGrath. "We are fortunate [to have] her."
The win put Hoosac back in a familiar place, although this time the Hurricanes will hope to break their four-game losing streak in the state finals.
"It feels great to be a senior and make it this far," Mendel said. "I think we have a lot of potential, and hopefully we can put our best foot forward and win the states."
The experience will be familiar for the older players, and a new frontier for the younger ones. All of the Hurricanes, though, are ready to give it their best shot.
"I feel very nervous, but confident at the same time," McGrath said of appearing in a state final. "I feel like my teammates will help me through it."
Bickford 1-0-2, Mundy 2-0-4, Jewett 0-0-0, Miller 4-1-12, Cullen 3-0-6, Adams 1-0-3, Donovan 0-0-0, Rice 4-1-9, Hubbell 0-0-0, Roche 0-0-0, Clark 2-2-7. Totals 17-3-42.
HOOSAC VALLEY (63)
Canales 1-0-3, Mercier 8-2-22, Levesque 1-2-4, Winn 0-0-0, Robinson 2-3-7, Hugger 0-0-0, Mendel 8-2-21, Witek 0-0-0, McGrath 2-0-6, Field 0-0-0, Bird 0-0-0. Totals 22-9-63
Millis 9 9 11 13 — 42
Hoosac 15 11 17 20 — 63
3-point goals — M 5 (Miller 3, Adams, Clark); HV 10 (Mercier 4, Mendel 3, McGrath 2, Canales).
Geoff Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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