CHESHIRE, Mass. -- The experience and maturity of the Hoosac Valley girls' basketball team was supposed to be the
Madison Ryan See more photos here.
difference in helping the Hurricanes advance further into the Western Mass. tournament this year.
Ironically, it was a couple of players with very little experience that ultimately made the difference in Hoosac's 49-36 home win over Palmer on Tuesday night. Freshman point guard Madison Ryan had a huge game off of the bench, leading her team with 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while fellow backup Amber Lesure chipped in with 10 points of her own to carry the seventh-seeded Hurricanes to a first-round win over the 10th-seeded Panthers, last year's Division 2 sectional champion.
It ended up being quite the coming-out party for Ryan, who doubled up on most of her season stats in the first playoff appearance of her career. Both her and Lesure didn't seem fazed by the moment and helped Hoosac (16-5) take control of the game late in the first quarter before blowing it open midway through the third.
"Amber and Maddie really just came off [of the bench] and generated energy," Hurricanes head coach Ron Wojcik said. "That whole second unit just came out and brought the energy [in the second half]. At that point, I thought Palmer was a little tired. They had been playing against our first unit, and the second unit just came in and took it to them. It was good to see."
Hoosac built a 25-12 lead at halftime thanks to a stifling defensive effort that forced the Panthers (10-11) into 15 first-half turnovers. The Hurricanes were a little less than satisfied, however, especially considering they shot just 3 of 9 from the free-throw line in the first half. Palmer had several of its own missed opportunities in the first two quarters but looked like they were turning the corner early in the third quarter when a 10-4 run cut the hosts' lead to 31-22.
That's when Lesure and Ryan made several critical plays to stop the Panthers' run and steer the game into Hoosac's direction. Lesure first finished off a runner in the lane before picking off one of the 'Canes 14 steals on the night and finding Ryan up the court for an open lay in. Ryan then connected with junior Megan Rodowicz (eight points, six rebounds) for another easy finish under the basket, pushing Hoosac's lead back up to 15 points.
Palmer's Emily Czaja broke up the 6-0 run with a baseline jumper, but Ryan quickly answered with her third 3-pointer of the night. The two teams traded threes after that before Ryan finished off the third quarter by making a steal and setting up sophomore Sydnee Gallup for a fast-break lay-up to give the Hurricanes an insurmountable 45-27 lead heading into the fourth.
After the final whistle blew, a stunned Ryan said she didn't quite know what to expect heading into her first tournament game.
"I was really nervous, but I knew we were going to pull it out and win," she said. "We just tried to bring the same energy as the first team. Our coach tells us to shoot when we're open, so both Amber and I let it go when we're open and hope it goes in."
"Our run in the third quarter was big. It brought a lot of energy, kept us going and got us ahead by a lot."
Hoosac continued its run at the start of the fourth quarter, getting back-to-back offensive rebounds and putbacks by Lesure and Celina Sistrunk to open a 22-point advantage. It was all just a formality after that, as the visitors scored the final nine points of the game to make the final score respectable. The Hurricanes' full-court press proved too much for Palmer in the end, forcing the Panthers into 22 turnovers in the game. Senior guard Alyssa Darling had game highs of 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Panthers, but early foul trouble forced her to become more conservative and limited her aggressiveness on the offensive end.
"I thought we did a good job of getting the ball out of her hands in the first half," Wojcik said. "She started to make some cuts that I got concerned about after she gave up the ball. We tried to work on that, but she's a great player and she's going to find a way to get the ball back. I thought she did everything she could, but I thought we did a good job defensively.
"I thought what killed us in the first half is we didn't finish. We had a lot of lay-ups and free throws that we missed and left a lot of points out there. That worries you in a game like that, but I thought in the second half the second unit just turned a great performance in to turn the game around."
Both teams struggled to get going in the first quarter until Lesure and Ryan first made their presence known in the game. With the score tied at five points apiece, Ryan found Lesure at the top of the key for an open 3-pointer. Lesure then stepped into the paint for a runner on the next play before Ryan sank another triple from the left wing to give the hosts a 13-5 lead at the end of the quarter. Sophomore forward Emily Rosse also had some big plays in the first half, scoring six of her eight points and grabbing four of her six rebounds before halftime.
Asked if he expected two of his youngest players to play such pivotal roles on Tuesday night, Wojcik said, "You never know what to expect from them. They've been bringing energy everyday in practice and they've been shooting the ball really, really well. We've been working on our traps and zones, and that second unit is running against our trap in practice. They're knocking in threes all over the place, and I said yesterday that I hope Palmer doesn't do this to us tomorrow night.
"I just thought their efforts in practice really carried over to the game. It's a really good lesson for kids. When kids bring it everyday in practice, that's what really makes you a better player in the games."
Next up for Hoosac is a date with No. 2 Hampshire (17-3) on Friday night. The Hurricanes nearly upset top-seeded Mahar as a No. 8 seed a year ago, so they feel confident going on the road again with a team that has some more experience underneath its belt this season.
"I think we have a really good shot," Wojcik said. "I think Hampshire is a great team, but we play a little different style than the teams they're used to. We're going to come after them. I think the key for us is putting the ball in the basket. If we can put the ball in the basket against Hampshire, then we'll have a shot to get to the Cage.
"The experience we bring this year compared to last year is huge."