Weekly Feature



2018-03-07 / Sports

Lady Falcon cagers’ pressure too much in AA semifinal

by JASON NADOLINSKI
Reporter

The third time this year was not the charm for Clarence’s girls basketball team when it took on Frontier Saturday in one of two Section VI Class AA semifinals at Kenmore West High School.

Ella Eckert tries to drive the baseline as a Frontier defender does her best to slow her down during Clarence’s 46-39 loss in Saturday’s Section VI Class AA semifinal at Kenmore West. Eckert scored 17 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in her final game as a Lady Red Devil. Photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Ella Eckert tries to drive the baseline as a Frontier defender does her best to slow her down during Clarence’s 46-39 loss in Saturday’s Section VI Class AA semifinal at Kenmore West. Eckert scored 17 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in her final game as a Lady Red Devil. Photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com The seventh-seeded Lady Falcons – who entered the contest 1-4 against the sixth-seeded Lady Red Devils dating back to a 2016-17 campaign that included Clarence’s victory in the AA final – used stifling full-court defensive pressure to force a myriad of turnovers that Frontier turned into easy points in transition en route to securing a 46-39 victory and return trip to Buffalo State College this evening.

“Frontier does some of the best pressing you can see in Western New York,” coach Erin Booker said. “They play really well together, and they have girls who can come in off the bench and know where to go and how to perform. You know they’re going to press and that it’s going to be intense, so to not see a pressing team like that for so long – they were the last team we played in our division, and they’re just so good about switching up their presses – just hurt us in terms of our readiness for that. It’s why falling behind by six points right off the bat kind of stuck with us for the rest of the game, because we just couldn’t find ways to break through that pressure consistently enough.”

One of the ways Booker was hoping to counter Frontier’s pressure – making free throws – unfortunately didn’t materialize for the Lady Red Devils. Clarence came up empty in nine separate chances from the foul line, seven of which came during the first half with Lady Falcon sophomore start Claire Kruszka relegated to the bench after picking up a pair of early fouls. Kruszka, whom Booker called “one of the best guards in the area” alongside teammate Kennedy Izzo scored all 14 of her points for the Lady Falcons in the second half.

“Claire’s defense is phenomenal and she’s deadly when it comes to shooting threes, so it was tough to not capitalize with her out of the game for a good portion of the first half,” Booker said. “And what was really tough because of that was she was fresh when she did get back in the game – and she was looking to score, too.”

Clarence, which began the third quarter trailing 20-15, managed to pull within four points, 31-27, with less than a minute to go in the stanza before finishing the frame down 34-27. The Lady Red Devils stayed within striking distance for most of the fourth quarter as well – senior Ella Eckert (17 points, 17 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists) was virtually willing her squad with her all-out intensity – and pulled back within five, 41-36, with just over three minutes to play on a three pointer by Arianna Carey, but a 5-1 run over the next 90 seconds all but sealed the decision for Frontier.

“Ella just wanted it so bad,” Booker said. “She is just pure energy, always getting the team up and focused. You don’t get players like that with that kind of leadership very often. She’s the total package.”

Carly Reynolds chipped in with 11 points, nine rebounds and a block for Clarence, while Carey finished with eight points, having knocked down both ofArianna Carey fires one of her two three-point baskets for the game during the fourth quarter of Clarence’s game with Frontier. Carey, one of nine juniors on this year’s squad, finished the game with eight points. Photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Arianna Carey fires one of her two three-point baskets for the game during the fourth quarter of Clarence’s game with Frontier. Carey, one of nine juniors on this year’s squad, finished the game with eight points. Photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com the Lady Red Devils’ three-point baskets for the contest. Reynolds, who went 5-of-6 from the foul line, was one of Clarence’s bright spots from the charity stripe.

“I’ve been real happy with our free-throw percentage for most of the season, but our shots just would not fall against Frontier for whatever reason,” Booker said. “Free throws proved to be just as big a factor in the outcome as I thought they would.”

Clarence earned its spot in the semifinal round after dispatching third-seeded Lockport, 66-53, on Feb. 27 in the quarterfinal round. This time it was Clarence that rocketed out to a significant early lead, as the Lady Red Devils used the inside-outside game to keep Lockport off balance. Eckert and Reynolds combined to score half of Clarence’s first-quarter points in the paint, while Theresa Bienko and Grace Barker kept the Lady Lions honest by knocking down a combined three, three-point baskets.

Clarence continued to keep the pressure on Lockport with its speed, scoring some points in transition to complement Eckert’s putback baskets to extend its lead to 53-34 heading into the final stanza. The Lady Red Devils went to town from the foul line down the stretch, with Bienko, Eckert and Madelyn Stearns combining to go 6-of-6 from the stripe in the fourth quarter.

All told, Clarence went 13-of-16 from the free-throw line for the game, including a collective 12-of-14 effort in the second half.

“Lockport knows our bigs are our big scorers, so they packed their zone in a bit – which meant it kind of landed in the hands of our guards to step up and give us some solid contributions,” Booker said. “They have a huge court, so we were happy to run the court and use our quickness to score in transition quite a few times.”

Eckert led the way for Clarence with 22 points and 16 rebounds, while Reynolds (5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) and Bienko (4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) each contributed 12 points. Stearns chipped in with eight points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, while Barker finished with six points and two assists.

Kayla Callaghan dished out five of the 18 assists for the contest for the Lady Red Devils, who lose three seniors – Eckert, Reynolds and Gabby Andzel – off this year’s squad that finished 13-9 overall.

“Honestly, it’s kind of heartbreaking for me to have the season come to an end because it’s tough to say goodbye to players you’ve had for four or five years like I have with Ella and Carly,” Booker said. “You develop a nice relationship with girls when you coach them for that long. It’s really hard to even think about next year without them. We’ll have a bunch of girls back off this team next year, but we’ll definitely have a different look too.”

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