AMHERST, Mass. -- Taconic Falls to Northampton in Western Mass Final
By Rick Duteau
AMHERST, Mass - One might never have guessed what a special season was in store for the Taconic girls basketball team this year from a look at them at the beginning of it. With a lot of unique pieces all coming together the right way at the right time, Taconic made a run back to the Western Mass finals for the first time in 24 years.
Taconic's unforgettable season came to a difficult end on Saturday night, as it fell, 46-42,to the Northampton Blue Devils at the Curry Hicks Cage on the University of Massachusetts campus. The top seed of their bracket, the Blue Devils (18-4) defended their title by earning their second straight Western Mass championship.
But Taconic did not make it easy on them. The contest was a seesaw battle all the way through, as Taconic (18-5) left everything out on the floor. The last time the program had made it this far came before any of the current players had ever been born, back in 1995.
“It was pretty awesome and I’m happy that we’re here,” Taconic coach Matt Mickle said. “I don’t think we were just settling to be here; we wanted to win the game, and I thought we could have won it. But it’s a nice accomplishment for the program to finally turn things around. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come in the years to come.”
Mickle admitted that it took both players and coaches about a month before they all started to feel comfortable with one another. But those early growing pains were long forgotten by Saturday, as the Braves worked together as one cohesive unit that battled for the title.
Defense has been a strong staple for Taconic all year long, and against the Blue Devils it was as sharp as ever. Taconic excelled in disrupting the ball carriers and keeping Northampton out of the paint, which helped lead to turnovers and transition offense that kept Mickle's team in the game. It forced Northampton into 16 turnovers, including a steal from Taea Bramer that led to a layup that brought Taconic within two points with just over two minutes remaining.
The Blue Devils answered with the deciding bucket that sealed the victory. Senior center Kolbie Jones received an impressive bounce pass down low from Sydney Lewandowski and went soft off the glass for the two points and a 44-40 lead. A pair of free throws from Amanda Mieczkowski helped ice things with 25 seconds remaining.
Ahilya Phillips converted a layup with seven ticks left on the clock, but there just wasn’t enough time remaining for any further hope of a comeback.
“Our heart and effort is always there,” Mickle said. “I thought we did a great job in our half-trap to create some chaos, and we really started to turn it on and were reading passes late in the game. Northampton plays great defense and they clog the lanes up, so it was nice to get some stuff in transition. Unfortunately, we were not able to just make a couple more.”
Behind stifling defense by both parties, neither offense managed to establish much rhythm or consistency throughout. Taconic's best scoring burst came trailing by 10 points late in the third quarter, when it rallied back to pull within 34-32 with less than seven minutes remaining in the contest.
Bramer was a force all day, and she got things going then by converting a three-point play. The junior guard went through contact and switched and shot left-handed off the glass for two points and a trip to the charity stripe, where she confidently drained the free throw. She next assisted on a high, soft-floating 3-pointer from Johnahyah Curry, and then followed that by converting 1-of-2 free throws to open the fourth. Bramer had eight points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals overall.
A rebound putback from Ciany Conyers was followed by a free throw on the next possession that found Taconic back within one basket of retaking the lead for the first time since late in the first half. Conyers had a game-high 16 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Caroline Tanner and Jillian McGrath delivered keys plays down the stretch for Northampton that helped them regain control. Being able to maintain the lead helped the Blue Devils dictate the tempo late in the action as they closed out the victory.
Taconic last won a Western Mass title back in 1993, and this is the closest the program has been since. With most of the team set to return again next year, there is much optimism that the drought could soon come to an end.
The team will only graduate three players from this group, and four of the starting five from Saturday’s action will return together next season. The future is bright for the program, and this group this year will always hold a special place in the Taconic record books.
“I will always remember how hard they worked and just how much they enjoyed each other,” Mickle said. “It kind of took a while for us to mesh; we were coming from all different directions. It probably took about a month for us to get to know each other and for it to mesh out there on the court. But they are hard-working kids and there are always lots of smiles at practice. That’s the stuff that I’ll remember.”