Quarterfinals: Raiders push Spruce to the limit



DEFENDING THE HOOP — Raider Julia Quinn defends against Spruce Mountain's Emily Hogan. (Rivet Photo)
Vanessa Barnes 1-0-3, Alex Bessey 3-0-6, Nicole Hamblin 3-0-6, Emily Hogan 1-1-3, Emily Keene 5-8-18, Kailee Newcomb 2-4-9, Samantha Richards 3-2-8, LeDesta Tracy 1-0-2.
3-Pointers: Newcomb
Turnovers: 11
Free Throws: 16-28
Rebounds (15): Keene 5, Richards 3, Ouellette 3, Hamblin 2, Newcomb 1, Castonguay 1.
Lexi L’Heureux-Carland 5-1-11, Julia Quinn 1-2-5, Skye Dole 8-2-18, McKenna Gerchman 2-0-5, Nicole Bennett 2-0-4, Mackenzie Buzzell 3-2-7, Sage Boivin 0-1-1, Katherine Parker.
3-Pointers: Quinn, Gerchman, Buzzell
Turnovers: 24
Free Throws 8-10
Rebounds (27): Dole 12, Bennett 6, L’Heureux-Carland 2, Boivin 2, Gerchman 2, Buzzell 2, Quinn 1

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — When a team hasn’t played in a tournament game at the Portland Expo for several years, players are often “just happy to be there.”

Undefeated Spruce Mountain quickly discovered during the Class B quarterfinals that eighth-seeded Fryeburg Academy was hardly intimidated by the bright lights or the Number 2 ranked Phoenix.

Behind a dominating effort in the paint by senior center Skye Dole, who scored 18 points and hauled down 12 rebounds, the Raiders (12-8) pushed Spruce to the limit before running out of time and dropping a 55-51 decision.

Despite struggling times against Spruce’s trapping defenses (resulting in 24 turnovers), the Raiders chipped away at a seven-point deficit with 2:49 left to play to make it 46-42 after a Dole offensive rebound and score. FA made it a one possession contest with 43.5 seconds when sophomore McKenna Gerchmann drained a long-range 3-pointer. Freshman guard Mackenzie Buzzell scored four points down the stretch, including a nice pull-up jumper in the lane with 15.2 seconds left.

But, the Phoenix would avoid the first-round upset experienced by their boys’ basketball team as junior free-throw shooting whiz Emily Keene (who made 49 out of 50 shots in a recent contest) went 6-for-6 from the foul line enabling the Phoenix to fight off the Raiders’ comeback bid.

Fryeburg managed to control the boards, but turnovers kept them from advancing.

“We spent a majority of our time in practice preparing for their half court traps and also their full court pressure. They run multiple full court presses, and different versions of zones are in the quarter court along with man and the half court trap we saw on Wednesday. They are a nightmare to prepare for,” FA Coach Sean Watson said. “We figured we would turn the ball over a few times against them as no one has played a perfect game against them.”

After some early trouble (five turnovers in the first quarter), Watson made a few adjustments.

“We switched up our half court press breaker a little bit by placing a second guard (Mackenzie Buzzell) in the middle rather than a forward, which we had used for all of our other games. We did this for a couple of reasons; one, it gave us an extra ball handler to attack the basket when we got the ball in the middle of the floor where we wouldn't be limited to just looking to pass opposite off the reversal,” he said. “Secondly, it gave us a second ball-handling option in our man press breaker and we could easily get to our proper spots if they switched from man to zone. We also tried to make it a point to keep Skye back well behind our wings to be sure we had good passing angles for ball reversal. All year, Spruce has had a field day picking off flat passes from the sideline. We really emphasized and worked on fully completing our ball reversals to force their zone to try to cover as much of the floor as possible. We also wanted to make sure that we didn’t bypass an open teammate in an effort to make the great pass. Spruce does a fantastic job of creating the illusion of a cross-court open player and then picking that pass off.”

Watson felt at times the Raiders were a bit too quick and had a hard time making the proper pass into the middle.

“We had a hard time gauging how far to lead the person in the middle. A few times we passed the ball to where the player was and not where the player would be. We struggled at times attacking the basket after beating the half court traps. It is so easy to be relieved and satisfied to get the ball into the frontcourt versus a good half court trapping defense and not be aggressive in attacking the basket,” he said. “We did a much better job of attacking the basket as the game moved on.”

Spruce scored the game’s first six points, but the Raiders settled down and tied the game at 8-8 as sophomore Lexi L’Heureux-Carland scored off two strong moves to the hoop and point guard Julia Quinn netted a 3-pointer.

Spruce went on a 6-2 run to close the quarter to take a 17-13 lead.

The Raiders had chances to take a lead in the second period, but misfired on some open looks in the lane. Coupled with six turnovers, the Raiders went the last two minutes without scoring a bucket, managing a Dole free throw with 34.2 seconds to trail at the halftime break, 25-20.

Spruce turned up the pressure to start the third quarter, and it paid instant dividends as the Phoenix cashed in on a pair of turnovers and within three minutes, the lead swelled to 33-22.

As they have done all season, the Raiders refused to call it a day. Buzzell knocked down a trey, Quinn swished a pair of foul shots and Dole scored twice off well-placed passes from L’Heureux-Carland to trim the deficit to 39-33 entering the fourth period.

After a quiet offensive afternoon, Spruce guard Nicole Hamblin made her presence felt at a critical time, scoring all six of her points on three straight possessions to give the Phoenix a 45-38 lead with 2:49 left.

Coach Watson had to like the way his Raiders dug deep over the final 2 minutes, going all out in hopes of engineering a fantastic finish. One of the more athletic plays of the game came when Buzzell hustled toward the sideline for a loose ball, quickly sent the ball into the backcourt with a behind-the-back pass, which was retrieved by a FA teammate. Fryeburg scored on that possession to pull within four points.

Spruce’s Emily Keene, however, was a difference-maker throughout the contest, finishing with 18 points.

“Emily Keene is a fantastic player. She does a fantastic job of getting to the basket. She also draws a lot of contact. She’s a very heady player. I made the decision after scouting them and chatting with some of my coaching friends in other parts of the state to play their team straight up without trying to deny any one player the ball. I thought they were a balanced enough team and that they had so many offensive players that could get to the paint through dribble penetration that to deny one person the ball would limit our ability to help against dribble penetration,” Coach Watson said. “In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. Knowing the outcome now, I can certainly second guess that decision. That decision may have cost us the game. If I had to do it all over again, knowing the outcome, I might make a different choice. But not knowing the outcome and not knowing what would have happened if we had denied her the ball (maybe Hamblin or Bessey or some other player may have come up big) I’m content to live with the decision to play them straight up.”

Playing hard for all 32 minutes has been Coach Watson’s message throughout the season.

“Our girls battled right to the end. They’re competitors and I think that’s the ultimate compliment that one can pay to an athlete. All season long, the girls fought hard right to the end. That’s what I’m most happy with. That’s the real story with these kids and that’s the real story of our season. Never say die. Never give in. That’s a great formula for success in any endeavor,” Coach Watson said. “People with those traits are the kinds of people you want as teammates, friends, and colleagues. I hope they carry that willingness to compete throughout their lives. While time ran out on them in this particular game, it was that type of attitude and effort that allowed them to get to the Expo.”

Look back and look ahead

As one season ends, a new chapter will begin for the Raider basketball program.

FA loses four seniors.

“Our seniors were fantastic to work with. For the most part, they were established members of the varsity program when I was hired. As juniors and as seniors, they were very supportive of what we’ve been trying to do and they way we’ve tried to do it. Some new coaches experience nightmare scenarios dealing with established players. Nothing could be further from the truth with these girls,” Coach Watson said. “I feel terrible for both Sydney Charles and Sarah Welch. Both were starters and captains and played vital roles in our success, but were unable to see action at the Expo due to illness and injury. Makayla Frost was also a member of the team but was absent for the prelim and quarterfinal game due to a school trip.”

FA’s fourth senior, Skye Dole, really put FA on her back in the second half of the game at the Expo, Watson said.

“She was a dominant force. Her will, determination, and basketball ability really shined during our fourth quarter run,” he said. “I hope everyone can appreciate her efforts and her talents. She is headed to the University of Rochester and will be playing for them next fall.”

In the locker room after the game, Coach Watson thanked the seniors and told them that he would always remember them as the group that ushered in a new era of girls’ basketball at the Academy.

FA will return a strong nucleus, including Julia Quinn who has started at point guard for the past two years.

“We’ve put a ton of responsibility on her shoulders. To be a point guard in our conference is about as difficult a task as can be imagined. Julia has done it as a freshman and a sophomore. There is no player that is second guessed more than a point guard. Point guards are scrutinized by teammates, coaches and fans. Their play is out in the open for everyone to see. They’re criticized to the ‘nth degree’ and much of that criticism is unfair. Asking any player to handle the ball and make proper decisions with the defenses we see in our conference, with fans barking out instructions from the bleachers, is asking for a Herculean task to be completed,” Coach Watson said. “I feel Julia is underrated and underappreciated. She is a special player. She really focused on improving her shot in the off-season and it really paid off. With another off-season ahead of her, I think we are all going to see something really special next year.”

Alexis L’Heuruex-Carland has also started for FA both her freshmen and sophomore years. For two years now, she has created real match-up problems for the opposition, the coach said.

“She is a tall athletic player that can play in the post and has ball skills that make her a threat from the perimeter. She runs the court well and is a real threat in transition. When the opposition tries to play her with a guard we have looked to post her up and when she is played by bigger players she has given us the luxury of putting her out on the wing to utilize her ability to attack the basket with the dribble. Her versatility is going to allow her to be a focal point of our offense next year,” Coach Watson said.

McKenna Gerchman is also a sophomore and played on the varsity her freshman year. She started a couple games for the Raiders this year.

“McKenna is as aggressive as they come. She has really improved as an on-the-ball defender. She gave us quality minutes both offensively and defensively all year long. She is a very good spot-up shooter and has the ball handling skills to get to the basket. She hit a huge NBA range three pointer in the closing minutes of the Spruce game to cut their lead to three points,” Coach Watson said. “If she progresses in the off-season like she did last year, she will be right in the mix fighting for a starting spot next year.”

Remaining players include sophomores Sage Boivin and Katherine Parker (who joined the program after moving here from Idaho), along with freshmen Mackenzie Buzzell and Nicole Bennett.

“Sage Boivin is a quick, athletic player that always seems to find her way to the ball. She had a really good summer season last year and will be another player that will be fighting for more prominent minutes next year. She gives us important minutes as a defensive substitute, when we pressed full court in the closing minutes of the Spruce Mountain game,” the coach said. “Katherine is set up to be a bigger contributor to the varsity next year. It is tough for most players to come to a new school and to a new team and to fit in. Katherine fit in right away. The kids already in the program had the luxury of a full season with me and my system and also had the luxury of a full summer session as well. Katherine did not have that opportunity, but proved to be as coachable as any player I’ve had. She has a high basketball IQ and we are expecting a bright future for her.”

Mackenzie Buzzell started several games for FA down the stretch.

“She was very good for us this year and the sky is the limit for her. She played the second guard for us and spelled Julia at the point at times. When she was in the game it was really a situation where we were playing with two point guards,” the coach said. “Mackenzie is an exceptional ball handler with three-point shooting range. She is mature beyond her years. After three games into the season, she was the first person off the bench and would play the opposition’s best offensive player. She is a tremendous defender both inside and outside. We thought so highly of her ability that we changed our half court press breaker for Spruce Mountain to give her the opportunity to make more plays for us on the offensive end of the floor.”

Nicole Bennett was the surprise of the season as far as Coach Watson is concerned.

“All season long, she was a solid contributor. She also started in the quarterfinal game against Spruce Mountain. If she continues to work on her game she can be a difference-maker for the next three years. She is strong, has a knack for the ball, and is a fantastic rebounder. She can score and is a very sound perimeter defender for a post player with size,” Coach Watson said. “We were so confident in her ability she played Emily Keene person-to-person in our quarterfinal game. We had several coaches scouting our prelim game against Poland. One of those coaches told me, ‘Nicole Bennett saved your bacon tonight.’ He was exactly right. She was a big reason we won that game.”

For the Raiders to continue their success, Coach Watson stressed the importance of off-season training.

“As always, off-season preparation is critical. We had a tremendous turnout last year for our summer sessions. I hope we have a similar turnout this summer,” he said. “I hope the taste of success that the girls had this year will whet their appetite for more. I hope that they also appreciate the fact that a lot of people have helped them along the way. The locker room, after our loss, was pretty emotional. It was emotional enough that they probably don’t remember a thing I said. But, I asked them to please thank their rec coaches, their AAU coaches, their middle school coaches, and their parents, for they have all played a significant role in what the girls accomplished. If they haven’t said ‘thank you’ yet, and they read this article, I hope this serves as a not so subtle reminder.”



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