Wahconah girls basketball executes late to beat South Hadley, advance to Div. III Western Massachusetts final
AMHERST — Balanced offense, solid defense, great free-throw shooting.
Such a simple recipe, yet so hard to get right.
No. 6 Wahconah wasn't perfect in executing the concoction Thursday night, but the Warriors mixed everything together at the right time to take down No. 2 South Hadley in the Western Massachusetts Division III semifinals, 48-44. It was the second straight upset for the Warriors, after they knocked off No 3 Hoosac Valley in the quarterfinals.
Wahconah put four girls in double figures — the only four to score for the team — while using its stifling 1-3-1 zone to shut down South Hadley's most potent offensive contributors. Then, trailing by one with just over a minute to go, the Warriors went 7 for 8 at the line in the last minute, including a 6 for 6 showing from freshman Maria Gamberoni and a clutch 1-for-2 effort from Abbie Steinman after Steinman recorded a steal with under 10 seconds to go.
"No bigger one than Abbie's foul shot at the end there," Wahconah coach Liz Kay said of her team's scoring efforts. "I said she held me in suspense when she missed the first one. I said we have to make the second one. They just keep surprising me. No moment is too big for them. I keep waiting for them to almost stumble, and they don't need me."
Gamberoni scored 15, while Steinman, Julia O'Connor and Noelle Furlong each scored 11. Steinman and Furlong are options 1 and 2 off the bench for Wahconah (20-3).
"They come right out and make the big plays for us," O'Connor said of the bench mob. "They are very gutsy players and they get what we need done. It shows through their offense as well as their defense."
The win sends Wahconah back to the Western Mass. title game for the first time since 2011, when the Warriors beat Palmer 59-46 in the old Division II.
"It's amazing. I can't even put it into words," O'Connor said of the win. "We stuck through it through all four quarters, so I just can't be more proud of everyone."
Wahconah had to stick with it to pull out the win. Despite opening a 12-4 lead midway through the first quarter, the Warriors were never able to blow the game open. South Hadley, which has been at the Cage almost every year in recent memory, wasn't going away. After trailing 16-8 at the end of one quarter, the Tigers trimmed the deficit to 19-17 in the second on a jumper by Mia Kelly (10 points). Wahconah, though, responded by scoring the last five points of the second quarter to go up 24-17 at the break. O'Connor capped the run with a layup on a pass from Gamberoni.
In the third, South Hadley came out with the hot hands, and rattled off eight straight to take a 25-24 lead on a pair of free throws from Isabella Earle (14 points). O'Connor stymied the run with a layup, but then South Hadley used a pair of steals to take a 29-26 lead.
Any chance the Tigers had to running away with things, though, was squashed by the Wahconah defense.
First, Furlong scored on a coast-to-coast effort off a defensive rebound to make it 29-28. Then on the ensuing possession, Suzie Stefanik recorded a steal and that turned into an offensive putback by Steinman, giving Wahconah back the lead. Off a loose-ball foul, Furlong then canned a triple on a pass from O'Connor, and the Warriors were back in business. O'Connor hit 1 of 2 at the line to put her team up 34-29 after three.
"We had to take it play by play, try to get a stop," O'Connor said of trying to keep South Hadley at bay. "They are a very good team they are very good at transition, too, so we had to get back and box out and play good defense."
South Hadley, though, came back again. To open the fourth, the Tigers scored the first six of the quarter to take a 35-34 lead. It was the first of four lead changes in the final quarter.
Wahconah tied the game up when Steinman hit one of two at the line, and on the miss O'Connor got the offensive board and went back up with it to make it 37-35. South Hadley got the lead back at 42-41 with 1:28 to go, when Mikhaila Edge scored on a pass from Kelly.
That's when the free throws came into play. Gamberoni went up the first three times, and made all six of her tries. The fifth and sixth made it 47-44, after a layup by Kelly brought her team within one.
On the ensuing play, the Tigers tried to push the ball up the floor quickly. Steinman read the play, and got a hand on the ball to force a steal and draw a foul.
She missed the first, but then put down the second to give the game its final score.
"I knew we had to get a stop and then score," Steinman said, "and I just wanted to finish it and win."
O'Connor finished with seven rebounds and four assists in the win, while Gamberoni had three assists, three rebounds and three steals. Furlong had six boards off the bench.
For South Hadley (17-5), Kelly finished with seven rebounds and two assists, and Alexa Blaney had four steals.
Wahconah advances to play No. 1 Hamsphire, which won in overtime against No. 5 Greenfield 63-59. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:15 p.m on Saturday afternoon.
With only a day to get ready for the Western Mass. title game, Steinman said the focus is simple.
"Keep up the intensity and come back strong."
McMahon 0-0-0, Stefanik 0-0-0, Steinman 4-3-11, Tobler 0-0-0, Gamberoni 3-8-15, Furlong 5-0-11, O'Connor 5-1-11. Totals 17-12-48.
SOUTH HADLEY (44)
A. Edge 2-3-7, M. Edge 3-0-6, Kelly 4-2-10, A. Blaney 3-1-7, Zatowski 0-0-0, Gawron 0-0-0, O. Blaney 0-0-0, Earle 3-5-14. Totals 15-11-44.
Wahconah 16 8 10 14 — 48
S. Hadley 8 9 12 15 — 44
3-point goals — W 2 (Furlong, Gamberoni). SH 3 (Earle).
Geoff Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.
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