Girls’ basketball: Phoenix rise above nerves

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JAY —  There’s planning for the jitters and then there is curing them.

Spruce Mountain girls’ basketball coach Gavin Kane expected his team to be a little nervous Wednesday. It was the first playoff game in the program’s history and much of his roster had never played a varsity tournament game before.

What he was going to do about it was another matter.

“I was concerned that we were a little too wired up because you don’t know how long it takes to come out of that,” said Kane. “Sometimes with young kids, they don’t come out of that.”

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Kane tried to use an early pressure defense to help his team work out the nerves but that didn’t seem to work immediately.

The Phoenix showed anxiety in the first quarter but got down to business in the second. Spruce Mountain opened up the lead and never looked back in a 64-29 win over Poland in a Western B preliminary victory.

“I felt like we had some jitters coming out of the gate,” said Kane, whose team advances to a quarterfinal game against Leavitt next Tuesday at the Portland Expo. “We certainly showed it on the offensive end of the floor. We missed a couple bunnies and didn’t even get into our offense.”

Poland, ranked 12th,  stayed within reach in the first and cut the lead to 10-9 early in the second, but the fifth-ranked Phoenix responded with a strong second quarter. Spruce Mountain used an 8-2 run to open a seven-point lead and then finished the half convincingly with a 12-3 surge, including eight straight to finish the half.

“Once we settled in, we started executing much better,” said Kane, whose team watched the MVC title game slip away to Madison Monday. “From that second quarter on, I’m very pleased with the effort and the intensity we had on the defensive end of the floor. We’ve been missing that for the last seven to 10 days. That’s something we have to rely on if we’re going to continue to move forward.”

Poland struggled to get its offense going consistently. The Knights had 20 turnovers over the final three quarters and shot just 5-for-20 the rest of the way after hitting four of its first six shots in the second quarter. Poland likes to shoot from the outside but didn’t get many open looks.

“They played very hard defensively,” said Poland coach Darren Littlefield. “I felt that we got away from our offense because of their pressure. Our offense is set to pass and have people cut through. We passed and stood and watched and passed it back. I used two different timeouts to get them refocused and back to our offense.”

Emily Keene led the Phoenix (18-1) with 13 points while Alexi Deering added 12. Kathryn Ventrella and Samantha Richards each had nine.

Poland (6-13) got 10 from Emily Bolduc and seven from Michaella Arsenault.

“It was a tough way for us to end, but we’ve accomplished a lot,” said Littlefield, whose team’s six wins were the most in Poland girls’ history. “My girls have had a tough go of it the last couple of years, but I couldn’t be happier. We made a good run and made it to the playoffs.”

The Knights stayed close in the first quarter. The Phoenix hit just one of its first eight shots and didn’t play its typical stifling defense. The lead was 10-6 after one and a 3 by Arsenault made it 10-9 early in the second quarter.

Ventrella sat out much of the first quarter because of an early foul. Kane said he didn’t want her picking up a quick second foul. It took the Phoenix some adjusting without Ventrella handling the ball for them.

“She starts our offense and gets us going offensively,” said senior guard Alexi Deering. “Having her there is a big difference. I looked at the scoreboard and saw that it was a close game. I was like, ‘Oh wait, we haven’t had our starting point guard the whole quarter.'”

The Phoenix picked up the pressure defensively in the second. Though Poland hit four shots early, the Knights still had seven turnovers and scored just once in the final five minutes.

“Defense is our staple and it paid off tonight,” said Deering. “We were gradually building that lead. I knew if we kept playing defense, we’d get it. It would only be a matter of time.”

A short jumper by Keene and a drive by Ventrella made it 14-9 early in the second. After a Melora Lavoie basket for Poland, Kailee Newcomb scored in the post and Richards hit a short jumper to make it 18-11. Poland got 3’s from Brittina Maheux and Bolduc to cut the lead. After Bolduc’s basket with 2:54 left, Spruce Mountain ran off eight straight to end the half up 30-17.

Richards scored in the post and then set up Deering for an easy bucket. After Deering hit two free throws, she scored off a Ventrella steal and pass.

The Phoenix used a 10-1 run to open the third. Keene had four points during that stretch while Deering and Ashley Quirrion chipped in baskets. Victoria Ouellette scored a rebound to end the quarter up 45-23.

The Phoenix scored nine straight early in the fourth. Kristy Macomber had a three-point play to make it 54-25. 

“Our freshmen always step up big,” said Deering. “Even though they’re not starters, they come off the bench and score key points and that happened again tonight.”

kmills@sunjournal.com

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