By ERIC FORTUNE
For the Star Beacon
A perfect beginning, a near-perfect conclusion, but in between — peaks and valleys or simply put, a mess, at times.
Though as they have done all season, the Pymatuning Valley Lakers hit the shots when they needed them and pulled away in the final five minutes to escape with 54-39 victory of the Mathews Mustangs in a Northeastern Athletic Conference matchup.
“They had a nice game plan,” Pymatuning Valley coach Jeff Compan said. “Last time, Geena (Gabriel) was very effective going down the lane and scoring. She had 29 against them. This time, they had a girl at the high post and a girl clogging the lane.
“They were almost forcing us to do anything from the outside. Instead of moving the ball against it like we did early, we tried to force things in the middle quarters. It was just a big mess. They were ready to play. We were a little lethargic. They brought it to us tonight.”
At least after one quarter, it looked to be much of a continuation of what happened a week ago when these teams met as the Lakers (14-0, 7-0) rolled off the first 9 points of the game thanks in large part to the inside presence of Kelsea Brown and Megan Stech.
As well as scoring, Brown was huge on the defensive end with 4 of her 5 blocks coming during the opening frame. Both finished with 14 points apiece and Stech’s 11 rebounds gave her a double-double.
Maddie Williams’ bucket at the 3:30 mark ended the drought for the Mustangs (5-10, 1-7), but matters looked bleak as the Lakers led 16-4 after one.
“It was,” Mathews coach Joe Bornemiss said. “Our goal was to run some type of press breaker. We know they have those three strong girls upfront and that is hard to break. We tried to throw something together to throw over top and create something down the floor. Last game, we were passing the corners and they got steal after steal.”
That goal started to pay off with the Mustangs knocking down some buckets to chip into the lead while the Lakers went cold missing, but the teams played the quarter even with a 27-16 advantage at the half.
“We got off to a good start,” Compan said. “We talk all the time about getting out and scoring that first punch — figuratively that is. We come out move the ball and we have good looks. Then we just relaxed and they dug and clawed their way back in. I told the girls if you let teams stick around and you’re going to battle. That is exactly what happened.”
In the third quarter, it looked like the Lakers were poised to break the game open extending the lead out to 14, 2 minutes in, but again the Mustangs found success limiting Pymatuning Valley to 4-of-10 shooting and four costly turnovers.
It started a tidal wave that continued into the fourth quarter.
After a Brown 3 gave the Lakers some much needed breathing room at 39-26, Mathews’ 9-0 run made it 40-34 with five minutes left in regulation.
“We had Natalie (Halavick) start screening that zone better,” Bornemiss said. “They extend that zone so far with their length that half the time if you don’t handle it, you’re setting your zone up 30 foot from the hole. We didn’t want her to worry about scoring so much, but to screen a little bit so we could work off some shots. We were able to have some pretty good sets off of that zone.”
Instead of an upset of the third ranked team in Division III, the Lakers got a huge bucket from Abby Hamilton to extend the lead out to 9 and shortly after, Stech’s back-to-back buckets to made it a 13-point game again.
“Every time you lace it up, you have to be ready to play,” Compan said. “They were more ready to play than we were. There is a target on your back now. Everybody wants to beat you. You have to be able to bring it everyday.”
Fortune is a freelance writer from McDonald.