The Eastport/South Manor girls basketball team prides itself on defense, a tradition instilled by longtime head coach Steve Giacolone. The Lady Sharks were the top defensive team in all of Suffolk County this season, holding opposing teams to a minuscule 28.1 points per game and allowed opposing teams to score more than 30 points in a game just five times this season.
Westhampton Beach came into Saturday afternoon’s Class A semifinal fully aware of the Lady Sharks’ defensive prowess, and armed with a plan—to beat them at their own game.
The Lady Hurricanes defeated host and cross-town rival ESM, 33-25, to advance to their first county championship since 2005, where they’ll face Mount Sinai this Wednesday, February 20, at Centereach High School at 7 p.m. Mount Sinai defeated Hauppauge, the top seed in Class A, 56-43, in the other semifinal to advance. The county championship occurred too late to appear in this week’s issue but can found at 27east.com and next week’s issue.
“We kind of just said, if they’re going to play that tough D on us, we’re going to switch it up and do the same thing to them, see how they react to their own game,” Westhampton Beach senior Isabelle Smith said, after the win.
“We knew it was going to be a game of defense and that was our whole mindset,” Westhampton Beach head coach Katie Peters added. “We knew ESM had held all of their opponents to under 30 points, so we knew we were going to have to hold them below a certain point number in order for us to capitalize on some offensive opportunities.”
After a very low-scoring first half in which Westhampton Beach held a 12-9 lead, both teams eventually started to find the basket a little more in the second half.
Early in the third quarter, Westhampton Beach freshman Olivia Rongo stole the ball and drove to the basket for a layup but was fouled and subsequently slipped and appeared to hit her head on the hardwood. She had to come out of the game, but by the time she came back in minutes later, the score was pretty much the same as when she left, with her team leading, 16-12. She made a free throw to end what was a long scoreless drought for both teams, then made a three-pointer in the waning seconds of the quarter to give the Lady Canes a 20-12 lead, which, in a hard-fought, low-scoring game, seemed like it might be enough, but the Lady Sharks didn’t quit.
With 2:41 remaining in the game, ESM’s Casey Travers was fouled shooting a three, so she went to the line for three shots. She made the first two, missed the third, but got her own rebound and was fouled again. She made both free throws, then forced a turnover on the following inbounds play, leading to an easy basket for Katie McCormick, and just like that, thanks to Travers’s ferocious play, ESM was right back in it, trailing by just three points at 24-21.
From that point on, with both teams in the penalty bonus, it came down to which team was going to make its free throws. Smith made all six of her foul shots in the game’s final 2:12. Freshman Molly Skorobohaty also made a foul shot with 23.4 seconds remaining to make it a two-possession game and a Lady Canes’ lead at 31-25. Smith, for good measure, stole the ball in what ended up being ESM’s last possession, which led to a basket by Olivia Rongo as time expired.
“Unbelievable,” Peters said about the victory. “I’m really just so proud for the girls, so happy for them. They’ve worked hard. They’re smart, they do well in school, they’re athletic. They come to practice every day ready to learn and ready to comprehend what we’re doing as a team, and they’re really just an awesome group of girls.”
Smith, the leading scorer for Westhampton Beach, scored a basket early in the first quarter, but, to ESM’s credit, was held scoreless the rest of the game until her six key free throws in the fourth. She also had 10 rebounds and five steals.
Smith had a poor free-throw shooting game earlier this season so she asked Peters for help one day after practice. It may have been the difference in the team going to the county final.
“For 15 to 20 minutes after practice one day, all I did was shoot those free throws, because all of these teams are good now, every team is amazing, so you have to be ready for those high-pressure situations. We came up strong in that aspect,” Smith said.
“We kind of watched her taking the foul shots and tweaked a couple of little things,” Peters added. “She needed a better center of balance and she’s really been dynamite since.
“Foul shots and layups win games, especially these high-profile, these championship games like this.”
Olivia Rongo had 11 points and six rebounds and her older sister, Lindsay, a senior, added 10 points and six rebounds before fouling out. Olivia said she thrives in pressure situations because she doesn’t want to let her team down.
“You get this surge of energy when your team relies on you [and] trusts you with the ball when they pass it to you,” she said. “I feel like that just really helps me specifically when I’m shooting and it just brings a whole energy to the team.”
After beating Mount Sinai, 58-37, at home on December 21, the Lady Canes lost in Mount Sinai, 47-31, more recently on January 28. The players are well aware of the program’s 14-year absence since last being in a county championship and are excited to keep things going.
“It all comes down to the team dynamic we have,” Smith explained. “Coaches, and the whole community, everyone wants to be a part of it, and that’s something that’s really exciting because when everyone wants to be a part it, we never want it to end.”