Rutherford, NJ - The week started off with a busy schedule. Two home games in two days. Both a contrast in style and outcome. On Monday the Gaels hosted Bergen Charter. It was a non-conference matchup that saw the Gaels post a 40-21 victory, their second straight.
The contest was close in the first half. The Gaels entered intermission with a 15-12 lead. The defense was getting the job done.
In the first half Bergen Charter used 35 possessions. Their offensive efficiency (points divided by possessions) was 34. They were guilty of 15 turnovers for a turnover (turnovers divided by possessions) rate of 43%. In simpler terms, the Yellowjackets had more turnovers (15) than points (12). On the St. Mary side, the defense was good, the objective was getting the offense in gear.
"(at halftime) We talked about mental focus" St. Mary coach Janea Kelty said. "We discussed doing the little things better. Doing the little things right makes a difference."
The third period saw the Gaels take the game over. They limited the visitors to five points while getting the offense going. The Gaels took a 36-17 lead into the final stanza. In half court the Gaels zoned, occasionally trapping the ballhandler. The game changer was their full court pressure.
"Our press defense was very good," Kelty praised. "It forced turnovers and helped our offense." On a number of times the turnovers forced by pressure translated into transition turnovers on the offensive end.
Sophia McGonigle led all scorers with 12. "Sophia is an all around player," Kelty said of the sophomore guard. "She contributes on both offense and defense." Bergen Charter was paced by Amber Acosta with 10. The freshman center showed a smooth soft touch on the baseline. Jaylene Echeverry was the Gaels other double figure scorer with 10. Ella Korte added seven points and three steals. "Ella has been more aggressive lately," Kelty said. "Our assistant coach talked to her about not being afraid to shoot and she’s responded."
The next opponent, Becton, was one St. Mary lost to handily on the Wildcats’ home floor. High school teams, unlike college, rarely have a game day walk through. In this case a walk through might not be necessary since Becton probably did not change things up much strategically in the last 18 days since the two teams met. Besides, playing two games in two days is demanding enough. Add to the fact St. Mary was in mid-term examinations. "Our players are more exhausted mentally (due to mid-terms) than physically," Kelty noted. Regardless, her team would be ready.
"This time we will be in better than the last time we played them," she said. "Back then we were battling injuries and illnesses. Now we are in better shape." A very demanding test, Kelty believed the game would be a good barometer in how much the team progressed in a little over two weeks.
Tuesday afternoon was game time once again. Becton, currently battling Hasbrouck Heights for the conference title, in the end was too much to handle. The Wildcats scored the game’s first 28 points. St. Mary didn’t get on the board until just over three minutes remained in the first period. The Gaels entered the second frame down 36-4, having committed nine turnovers.
Becton utilizes full court pressure. Coach Mike Ryan pulled the pressure off early in the opening period and went to a halfcourt zone defense. On offense the visitors were a model of efficiency the first period, scoring 36 points in 19 possessions for an excellent 190 offensive efficiency. Katie Reiner, Becton’s outstanding guard scored 15 points. While defensive attention may have focused on the Becton junior, her classmate Chrissy Akiki had open looks and buried several threes. "We shot lights out, especially that first period," Ryan said. By the second period, Becton was no longer in transition, relying more on half court sets, and freely substituting. The score at the half was 49-9. By New Jersey rules a halftime deficit of 35 or more resulted in a second half running clock. Facing a difficult situation the Gaels stayed active in their zone defense and on offense. "We didn't give up," Kelty said. "That’s all you can ask. We took good shots on offense. We played hard."
The final was 60-22 in favor of Becton. The Wildcats improved to 12-2 overall and 7-0 in the Meadowlands Division. "Our game with (Hasbrouck) Heights on Monday will decide the league," Ryan said. "I wish we could have saved some offense for Monday," he added in jest.
Reiner finished with a game high 21 points. Many times she passed on open shots to find teammates. Akiki added 12, all coming from beyond the arc. Analise Feliz had a 10 point, 11 rebound double-double. St. Mary scoring honors were shared by Carly Sepp and Lilly Valentin with seven each. Echeverry did not match her scoring output from a day earlier. Kelty still saw good things. "Earlier this season she was in some sort of shell," Kelty said. "She was afraid to shoot. Now she's coming around and more confident." Summarizing Becton Kelty observed, "They have five scorers," They are tough to defend and they shoot an efficient percentage."
On paper, a tough game to assess from Becton’s perspective. Ryan, though, saw a noteworthy positive. "We had several scorers step up and provide balance," he said. "All season we have been encouraging everyone to get in the offense. As of late they have been doing that and did today. We have a lot of kids who can put the ball in the basket."
Ryan took time to commend the job Kelty is doing. "She (Kelty) is doing a great job," Ryan said. "They are improving each time out, play hard and in a tough situation today they kept working." He also added, "I have five juniors out there, in two years I start over with a new group. She has a young group now that will only get better."
St. Mary is 7-9 (1-6 conference). The Becton loss snapped a two game win streak. "My goal is to finish .500," Kelty said. Already, there is marked improvement over last season’s one win campaign. Seven wins with several weeks to go play an invitation to the Bergen Invitational Tournament is on the table. As we spoke the junior varsity teams of the respective schools warmed up for their game. A positive sign with St. Mary fielding a JV team is a significant show of interest in the program. Getting back to the present considerations, Kelty is concerned with her team handling pressure. They’ve seen it before and are certain to face it again. "We need less dribble," she said. "Make the first pass move the ball by passing and things will fall into place." Two days. Two games on opposite sides of the ledger. For the Gaels, two more days of learning and improving.