NORTHAMPTON >> With the defense Central Bucks West played in the first half Friday night, it was hard to tell the Bucks had gone a week without a game.
While the District 1 champion didn’t get off to the smoothest start in its PIAA 6A first round game against District 3-7 Hempfield, West’s defense was that good. An energetic, scrambling front had the Black Knights out of sync almost from the tip and right into halftime.
West’s defense set the pace as the Bucks topped Hempfield 49-32 at Council Rock South High School.
“We’re always in the gym together, even during that break so it’s hard for us not to come out still jelled,” West sophomore Emily Spratt said. “We all know our roles, we know what we’re out there to do and that’s what helps us stay together.”
It may sound odd to say the team that scored the first six points of the game had a sluggish start but West led just 6-4 midway through the opening frame. Hempfield however, had a nightmare of a time trying to move the ball against the scrambling Bucks.
Olivia Irons (three), Maddie Burke (two) and Paige Gilbert (one) combined for six first quarter steals with Burke adding another in the second that led to a long outlet for Spratt and a 15-4 lead. West bridged a 9-0 run between the first and second quarter, gave two straight hoops then finished the first half on an 8-0 run.
Nestled in that latter run was a corner three from Anna Blue, a big shot for a team that had a couple shots rim out earlier in the half.
“You want to come out every game strong, no matter who you are playing, so that’s just what we had to do,” Blue said. “We worked hard in practice and prepared for this game well. Wherever it’s open, I’m going to come out and play for my team.”
The defense didn’t turn down in the second half, even if the aggressive trapping and scrambling to the ball was lessened a bit and the Bucks continued to hold Hempfield in check. After holding the Black Knights to four points in the first and second quarters, West gave up just five in the third quarter.
Blue said it’s all about energy for West and their first half brand of defense is good at generating it. At the same time, the five players on the floor have to be on the same page with it.
“Our press pushed them up a little faster, which got us easy steals and us on a run,” Spratt said. “It’s all communication. If I go and trap someone with Liv, Maddie or Paige has to go get the girl in the middle, I think at this point we can just trust each other that they’re going to be there and they’ll talk to us.”
Hempfield’s only sustained run came late in the game when both teams went into their respective benches. The capper for West’s regulars was fittingly a defensively play as Gilbert poked the ball away in the backcourt and flew down the court for a breakaway layup and 46-18 lead.
The Bucks will face District 11 runner-up Freedom, a 60-49 winner over North Penn, in Tuesday’s second round.
PASS IT ON
Seven of West’s first nine hoops on Friday came via the assist. As a team, they chalked up 10 helpers on 18 baskets with none better than the dish Lily Evans dropped to Spratt in the fourth quarter.
“Lily had an awesome pass to me that all I had to do was make a layup but I wouldn’t have that layup if she didn’t pass me the ball,” Spratt said. “You have to trust your teammates. Most of my shots I made were off fantastic passes, so it’s a credit to Maddie looking up or Paige looking up.”
Spratt, who led West with 17 points, was the main beneficiary as all seven of her field goals in the game were set up by a teammate’s pass. It’s a credit to the team’s unselfish play but also to Spratt fitting right in with her upperclassmen teammates despite being a sophomore.
Of course, she doesn’t feel like a sophomore with this group.
“I’ve been coming to workouts since like fourth grade so I feel like a super-senior at this point,” Spratt said. “It still feels really cool to be here with these seniors because they’ve been awesome.”
One of those seniors, Burke played with Emily’s older sister Abbey but remembers the younger Spratt always being around the team, even filming games as a middle-schooler.
“Emily had two of the greatest practices I’ve ever seen her have this week,” West coach Zach Sibel said. “All offseason, they’re working out, even if we’re not there, even if it’s not a called workout, they’re there together. Maddie really pushed Emily in the summer and you’re starting to see the fruits of that labor.”
Knowing they needed the sophomore to elevate her game and play confident if the team wanted to go the places it desired, Burke made sure she and Spratt went at it in the offseason.
“She gets to the rim at ease,” Burke said. “When we played against each other, we’d get really physical and I think that helps. She takes the contact well and is playing really well.”
IN HER FACE
It’s nothing new for Maddie Burke to have a defender shadow her all over the court, but it’s been at a different level the past few weeks.
Friday, the West senior was again face-guarded by Hempfield but this particular encounter seemed to go a bit over the line. The defender on Burke not only tried to hold the Penn State-bound guard back, but leaned against her at every deadball and even went as far as to follow Burke over to the Bucks’ bench a few times.
“It’s been a lot of the games this season, being faceguarded and not being able to breathe honestly,” Burke said. “It’s a mental thing. They’re trying to get in my head but it’s also opening up my teammates.”
Sibel has continued to heap credit on Burke for the way the senior never lets it take her out of the game. In the district tournament, it was Burke throwing herself on the floor after a loose ball that turned into a couple key steals and on Friday, she had three steals, a couple assists and continued to attack the backboard.
At the same time, if West wants to keep advancing in states it needs Burke to be Burke and Sibel knows that better than anyone.
“It’s tough and you think about it two ways,” Sibel said. “First, it’s the greatest compliment in basketball if you get faceguarded. It’s almost like teams are willing to lose rather than let her go off, and it’s such an unselfishness from her.
“We’re going to work to get her involved. This was a game that was a little bit wacky, we were getting called for setting good screens so you have to take what you can get.”
Sibel said he was even a little surprised the extend that Hempfield went to try and take Burke out of the game. The senior scored two points, coming off a post-up over the much smaller Black Knights defender, but only took three shots in the game.
“She handled it like an absolute pro, it’s why she’s the player she is, why she’s going to Penn State and why she’s going to be ridiculously successful,” Sibel said. “The girl was following her over to the bench, it was something that never went away. Everyone is going to look at the point column, and I do too, but you have to look at the other columns and realize it is frustrating but she keeps it together.”
West has the pieces like Irons or Spratt or anyone else to step up around Burke but it would also love a breakout game for the sniper.
“It’s all about keeping my composure and doing the other things,” Burke said. “It’s like a nag, it’s annoying but I just look to keep my composure. I’m getting what I can get, I’m not going to force it, but I’m going to get some shots.”
CB WEST 10 13 13 13 – 49
HEMPFIELD 4 4 5 19 – 32
CBW: Paige Gilbert 4 2-4 10, Olivia Irons 3 3-4 9, Emily Spratt 7 3-4 17, Jess Broskey 0 3-4 3, Maddie Burke 1 0-0 2, Lily Evans 1 0-0 2, Anna Blue 1 0-0 3, Ava Longo 1 0-0 3, Tai Henkels 0 0-1 0. Totals: 18 11-17 49
H: Weindolt 2 0-1 4, Durkota 1 1-2 3, Cook 3 1-2 7, Moffatt 3 2-2 8, Edmond 1 2-3 4, Baer 1 0-0 3, No. 12 1 0-0 3. Totals: 12 6-11 32
3-pointers: CBW – Blue, Longo