They call it “clamp-down defense.”
When the Pierson/Bridgehampton girls basketball team needs a defensive stalwart, they turn to athletic guard Sofia Mancino. The freshman shadowed Smithtown Christian’s biggest offensive threat, eighth-grader Abigail Loiacono, and held her to eight second-half points, helping the Lady Whalers to a 55-31 victory in the Suffolk County C/D Qualifier of the Section XI Tournament at Centereach High School on Friday.
The victory advanced Pierson to the B/C/D Qualifier, which will be back at Centereach on Wednesday, February 20, at 4:30 p.m. against Class B Champion Mattituck. If the Lady Whalers defeat Mattituck for what would be a third time this season, they will advance to play the Class A champion, either Mount Sinai or Westhampton Beach, this Friday, February 22, at Walt Whitman High School, in the Small Schools Championship at 4:30 p.m.
The first half of this past Friday’s game was a little sloppy for both teams. There were turnovers, missed baskets and layups and fouls. After Pierson led most of the first half, albeit by just a few points, Loiacono tied the game at 18-18 on a nifty finger roll with 2:30 remaining. But senior Phoebe Arkinson scored on a putback after initially missing her shot, then senior Aziza El scored a basket to give the Lady Whalers a 22-18 lead at halftime.
Pierson came out of the gates quick in the third quarter, and not only got its offense in gear, outscoring the Lady Knights 21-5 in the frame, but also picked it up on the defensive side as well, holding the Lady Knights to just four field goals in the second half. Mancino, who also chipped in with six second-half points, was certainly a big reason for that, especially when starting junior point guard Chastin Giles was in foul trouble for much of the game.
“That’s her goal every single game, to hound the best player on the opposing team,” Pierson head coach Kevin Barron said. “She’s a great athlete and a great defender.
“I came out there and just wanted to work really hard,” Mancino said. “It’s all about team and our chemistry has been really, really good this season. We’re definitely a defensive team, and usually defense wins the game.”
Pierson senior Katie Kneeland scored a team-high 17 points in the game, nine of which led the Lady Whalers’ attack in the third quarter. She came into the game needing 22 points to reach the all-important 1,000-career point milestone. Needing just five points now, she should get that this week against Mattituck. Kneeland would be the first Lady Whaler to reach 1,000 career points since Robyn Bramoff in 2000.
With about two minutes remaining in the game, and the victory well in hand, Barron decided to pull all of his starters, including Kneeland.
“I looked at my mom in the stands and she put up a five, so I knew I was five points away with two minutes left, but we were winning by so much it’s not really appropriate for me to go all out at the end,” Kneeland said. “It was a good move for coach to pull out all the starters.”
Barron said Smithtown Christian denied Kneeland the ball throughout the game which made it tough for her to really get things going offensively, especially in the first half.
“I tried to set her up a little bit and that’s why she scored more in the second half,” he said. “I want her touching the ball as much as possible anyway, so we tried to get her some screens in the low post and she scored a couple off the fast break too.
“She knows winning is more important than anything,” Barron continued on Kneeland’s milestone. “If it happens, it happens. We’ve had that conversation multiple times.”
Pierson is still awaiting the location of its Regional Final but the date has been finalized. It will be Saturday, March 9, against the winner of Section I (Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, Westchester) and Section IX (Orange, Sullivan, Ulster). If Section IX wins that game it will host the Regional Final at SUNY New Paltz at 1:30 p.m. A win in that game would push the Lady Whalers into the New York State Class C Final Four at Hudson Valley Community College the weekend of March 15. In between now and then, Pierson will use the county tournament to continue to work on a few things.
“I want to play as many games as possible before March 9,” he said. “We’re just looking to win. We’re going to play it like it’s a championship because it is a championship, it’s a B/C/D/ Championship. We want to make it to that Small Schools Championship game.”