PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- At last.
In one sense, the Taconic High School girls basketball game needed just 19 games to reach the Western Mass championships. Saturday’s 51-41 win over Drury gave Taconic its 10th win, punching its ticket for the post-season with one game to spare.
In larger sense, this journey to the playoffs was four years in the making.
“I’m so happy for the kids,” Taconic coach Matt Mickel said. “Seniors and juniors. Seniors, especially. There are kids who have been in this program since they were freshmen, playing varsity basketball. They had 10 wins total coming into the season.
“I’m extremely happy for them. I’m proud of them. … We talked about this being their last game, possibly, on this court. There have been a lot of blood, sweat and tears on this court. I’m very proud of them. I think they showed how much they wanted it by how hard they worked tonight.”
No one worked harder or had more to show for it as an individual than senior Nyanna Slaughter, and no one was smiling a bigger smile as she came off the court.
“It’s been a giant goal,” she said. “I wasn’t able to play my freshman year, and I know they didn’t make the tournament that year. The last three years, it was always a dogfight. We could never get the wins.
“But this year, we made it, and it’s just an amazing feeling. We’ve wanted it for so long, and we finally got it. For our seniors, coach put a lot of pressure on us. He said, ‘It’s your year. Let’s get Western Mass.’ And we did. It’s amazing.”
Slaughter scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for Taconic (10-9), which led by as many as 18, gave up most of that lead and then outscored Drury, 11-5, in the last five minutes to secure the win.
Slaughter said there is a lot that has changed for her team this season.
“I think we just wanted it a lot more,” she said. “Shalee definitely (Conyers) has been a big help with her left. Our bench is so much more supportive. … Last year, we had seven girls, this year a full 10, 15 girls.”
Freshman Conyers came off the bench to score 17 points on Saturday night. When she plays with Slaughter, Taconic has a one-two combination in the post that few teams in Berkshire County can match.
“It’s definitely a big help to have Shalee out there because no one can guard her left,” Slaughter said. “You always feel like if you have a left. She can go left all day. She’s a great passer. Her arms are so long, so she can block shots. She’s great on defense.
“She’s an all-around great player.”
Conyers had six points in a 17-4 second quarter that allowed Taconic to take control of the game. It led by as many as 21 with about a minute left in the half after Cortnee Clemons -- another bench player -- put back a rebound to make it 28-9.
Drury (8-10) hit three foul shots down the stretch to get within 16 going to the locker room.
But the Blue Devils really made a dent in the lead after the break.
Drury coach Jay Meehan challenged his team to switch to a full-court press, and the Devils responded, whittling away at Taconic’s lead throughout the third quarter.
Sarah Lamarre (team-high 15 points) capped the quarter with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to get Drury within five, 35-30.
Drury got within four about three minutes into the fourth quarter when another Lamarre basket made it 40-36.
“I think, really what it was was [Drury] turned up their energy level,” Mickel said. “They brought it to another level. He switched to man-to-man pressure and got out of his zone. Really, I give them a lot of credit. They just really put the pressure on us. We didn’t handle it great.
“Sometimes we get a little helter-skelter when the pressure gets turned up. I’m glad we held on. I think we composed ourselves toward the end.”
After Slaughter hit a 3 to make it 43-36, Taconic coughed up the ball against the press just two more times while holding Drury to five points over the last five minutes.
Meehan said he hopes the Devils can find a way to maintain their energy for a full 32 minutes in their last two regular season games. If they cannot, there likely will not be any post-season games.
“We have not played 32 minutes of good basketball all year -- all year,” he said. “It comes back to haunt us every game. I don’t have any answers. Trust me, I’m searching.
“I wish I had the answers because we’re a pretty good team when we play with energy and some passion. Then there are times when we play … I don’t even know.”