Take a deep breath Garrett, you’ve earned it.
By beating West Noble 49-42 on Friday night, the Railroaders have opened up their lead in the NECC to a – dare we say – comfortable margin.
Just a week remains in the girls basketball regular season and things are far from over in the area’s most interesting and deep girls basketball conference, but Garrett has earned this deep breath and a modicum of relaxation. They are coming off a disappointingly short run in the conference tournament, but how unbeatable they have been for the vast majority of the season gave them early separation in the regular season race, something certainly nice to have this time of year.
With the win, Garrett improves to 8-0 in conference with every other team having at least two losses in league play. It allows them to lock up an outright conference title on Tuesday if they can get a win against 10th place Fremont in a home game. It is the first time Garrett has had at least a share of the NECC crown since 2004.
Things really did look in Garrett’s favor overall before Friday night, but visiting West Noble was never a gimme game. The Chargers came into Friday night with the highest margin of victory on average of any team in the conference. That is saying a lot when you consider how Garrett has railroaded enough of their competition.
West Noble came out covering all of their bases with a variety of zones and pressures. Despite the close nature of the score throughout the first half, including just a 9-8 lead after the first, the Chargers had to have been happy with how their defensive strategy panned out. Of those eight first quarter Garrett points, all came from Faith Owen and zero came within 15 feet of the basket. Owen hit two triples and a two point jumper from so deep that it may as well have been a three. West Noble pushed the lead to 15-8 by the 5:21 mark of the second quarter, shutting down attempt after attempt at the rim for the Railroaders by employing both a 2-3 zone and a hybrid 2-1-2 that saw defenders Lilly Mast and Mackensy Mabie jump Garrett point guard Nataley Armstrong, often as she crossed half court, and also trap Railroader guards on the wings.
It wasn’t until near the midway point of the second that Garrett saw a second scorer get on the board on an Armstrong triple. Meanwhile West Noble was taking time in their offensive sets, finding more routes to the rim and often getting fouled on their way to the basket. West Noble’s Nichelle Phares was able to consistently find rhythm away from the basket with her jumpers being a nice first half difference maker while the Railroaders worked to fight back with open threes caused by faster ball movement against the Charger zone. As West Noble clamped down on the deep shot, Garrett was able to open up the inside. In the closing seconds of the first half, Armstrong drew in the defense as she drove to the basket and enabled an easy dump off to Morgan Ostrowski, who’s lay in gave Garrett a sudden 22-21 lead leading into the break.
Garrett scored seven of the last eight points in the half to storm back.
West Noble wasn’t to be denied. It makes sense as not only does Garrett get every team’s best fight this season, the Chargers have boosted themselves to be a – for some reason – surprise number two team in the NECC. It shouldn’t be a surprise because of their upperclass experience; but in the depth we knew we’d get, few had them at #2. The Chargers fought in front of their small but loud home crowd. Consistent cuts and backdoor screens allowed West Noble far better looks at the rim than Garrett early in the third quarter.
What has Garrett learned this year with their backs against the wall? It hasn’t happened much and it makes moments like Friday that much more difficult. When there aren’t those five point deficits heading into the fourth quarter, how do you know what to do when the moment comes. Experience helps; this group is still relatively young in years but about the area’s oldest team in experience. When Bailey Kelham converted a fast break and-one a third of the way through the quarter to give Garrett lead back, momentum clearly started favoring the visiting team but the Chargers refused to let them chip away for long, immediately tying the game back at 37 right before the five minute mark.
What happened in that final 4:47 was the definition of treading water. Garrett struck, West Noble struck back; neither team could find anything that resembled comfort and it had us all holding our collective breath.
After a long West Noble possession that took over a minute off the clock, Garrett found a way and a window to take the lead. Kelham cut off a dribble drive defensively and drew a jump ball call as she pinned a shot attempt down. It gave Garrett the ball back on the possession arrow and with 48 seconds to go, an Ostrowski kick out to Owen for an open three gave the Railroaders a 44-42 lead. It was Owen’s first basket since scoring all eight first quarter points. But she sure looked poised in knocking down that big one. That, I would say, is what experience gets you: great maturity and toughness in a great and championship culture.
After Garrett nabbed a loose ball and got a timeout call just before a jump ball could be locked up with 35 seconds to go, it allowed them to control the time left and head to he free throw line with the lead that Armstrong extended to four at the stripe. Garrett ended up scoring the last eight points of the game.
The Railroaders didn’t have their best night. Chances are, coach Bob Lapadot lost a hair or two if they didn’t turn gray along the way. But when they had to pull it out, when they had to make plays, they just did.
That goes a long way in the regular season and will go a long way in the postseason. Now that the Railroaders have clinched at least a share of the a conference crown, they get their deep breath. It’s been a well earned one, especially after they turned Friday night from potential debacle to a momentous occasion.
Kelham finished with a team high 16 points, while Owen added 12 and Ostrowski had a 12 point/10 rebound double double for the Railroaders.
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