LOWER MERION >> Garnet Valley has walked around with a target on its back for a long time. The team to beat in the Central League had won four consecutive league titles and had lost only one game to a conference foe since the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign.
Springfield was tired of seeing Garnet Valley win and wanted to do something about it. The Cougars believed it was their time.
It’s not a coincidence that a Ky McNichol-led Springfield team was the last to defeat Garnet Valley. You have to go back to Dec. 22, 2015, when McNichol was in her second year coaching the Cougars. In her rookie season she won six games. The next season, within its first month, McNichol was the coach responsible for ending Garnet Valley’s then-38-game winning streak in the Central League.
Could the Cougars do it again Tuesday night at Harriton, with the Central League title at stake? You bet.
Springfield showed an intestinal fortitude that was unmatched. They were hungry … and you know what Eagles lineman Jason Kelce said about hungry dogs.
They run faster.
Led by textbook defense, sensational clutch shooting by freshman Alexa Abbonizio and a will not to quit, Springfield defeated Garnet Valley, 51-46, to win its first league title since 2010. Springfield also avenged a 39-21 setback to GV in the regular season.
“Going for five years in a row is just an insane amount to win. The fact that we even contended with them is amazing,” sophomore guard Alyssa Long said. “It was our game tonight. We didn’t care who they were, we wanted to win and it was going to happen to us.”
Springfield believed that if it played its usual brand of in-your-face defense, created turnovers and scored in transition, it would be successful.
Notwithstanding a sluggish first quarter, Springfield’s blueprint worked to perfection. For starters, the Cougars (18-6) knew it had to rattle the cage of
arguably the best scorer in Delaware County, junior forward Emily McAteer. Jordan D’Ambrosio was tasked with stalking McAteer and limiting her opportunities.
“We knew we had to guard Emily, she’s a very respected player. We had to stop Emily in order to win the basketball game,” McNichol said. “Not let her post up, but not even let her catch the basketball — bottom line. Jordan followed our game plan, and what she had in her mind was that she was not going to let Emily score tonight. We knew the other kids could hurt us, but we were OK with letting them.”
Except that proved problematic for McNichol and the Cougars early on. Drexel-bound junior Brianne Borcky wasn’t receiving the same treatment, and she scored seven first-quarter points to lead the charge as the Jaguars jumped out to a 17-7 advantage after eight minutes.
New game plan for Springfield? Kind of.
“We didn’t face guard Bri to start, but we decided to pick up the pressure on her as well,” McNichol said. “The first time we played them, we guarded both of them, in their face. This time we decided on doing that to only one of them, in this case it was Emily, and then once Bri started to go off in the first quarter we started to play her that way, too.”
Springfield scored the first six points of the second period. Abbonizio hit a 3-pointer, D’Ambrosio drove to the rim and scored. Eventually, Abbonizio nailed a 3-pointer to give Springfield its first lead. The Cougars went on a 14-2 run in the second quarter to take a 21-19 lead into the break.
“I think we settled in and said, ‘OK, it’s fine. It’s just Garnet Valley,we got it’” said D’Ambrosio, who finished with a game-high 20 points on 5-for-6 shooting from the field. She was 7-for-8 at the foul line to help the Cougars seal the victory. “We’re here and we’re ready to play. We couldn’t get pushed around.”
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) February 14, 2018
Belle Mastropietro and D’Ambrosio, who played as freshmen the last time Springfield downed Garnet Valley, agreed about one thing in particular.
“Really, in the end, I think we wanted it more,” D’Ambrosio said.
Knotted up at 28 to begin the final stanza, McAteer made her second shot of the game to put the Jags back in front. Mastropietro answered with a trey before Morgan Falcone hit a long jumper to give the Jags a 32-31 edge. Seconds later, Carli Johnson put back a miss to give Springfield a lead that it didn’t relinquish.
Abbonizio delivered the crushing blows in the form of the 3-ball in the fourth quarter. She hit a trio of them as Springfield jumped out to leads of seven and eight points within the first three minutes of the final quarter.
“In the beginning I was hesitant and I had some travels,” Abbonizio said, “But my teammates got in my ear and said, ‘Just shoot it.’ I just started to let it go and they went in.”
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) February 14, 2018
Springfield’s defense, which was the real difference maker, forced 14 turnovers after the first period. And the Cougars’ speed and athleticism, paired with a relentless defensive attack, eventually left the Jags exhausted despite an admirable effort from Borcky and McAteer, each of whom scored 15 points. McAteer had 11 of her points in the fourth, while Borcky was held to eight points after the first period.
“We went into the game knowing Emily’s their best player, their best scorer,” Mastropietro said. “We had to make sure she didn’t hurt us again.”
“We had to adjust to whoever was scoring more,” D’Ambrosio added. “We had to adjust to who we were face-guarding or who to put more help on. Bri heated up so we obviously had to stop her.”
Mastropietro did a little of everything: 11 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals. Johnson grabbed six rebounds — none bigger than the putback in the fourth. All five of Abbonizio’s baskets came from beyond the arc. The Cougars shot 44.4 percent (8-for-18) from long distance.
Now Springfield will focus on a bigger prize — winning its second straight District 1 Class 5A title.
“Our kids really wanted it tonight, they really wanted to prove that they can beat Garnet Valley,” McNichol said. “These kids have put their hearts and souls into this team. They played their hearts out tonight and proved that anything can happen when you work hard … and they wanted it.”