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Smuda, D-East defense springs Cougars past West Chester East

West Goshen >> Downingtown East junior Bella Smuda made her 6-foot-5 presence felt Thursday evening at West Chester East, scoring 29 points (including 14 field goals) and grabbing numerous key rebounds in the Cougars’ 49-46 win.
The victory kept the Cougars (11-3, 7-0) unbeaten in the Ches-Mont National Division.
A less heralded, but equally important factor in Thursday’s win was the visitors’ tough defense, which held the prolific offense of the Vikings (9-5, 4-3) to seven points in the final quarter.
“Our defense is one of our cornerstones, and I was happy with the way we played defense tonight,” said D-East girls’ basketball head coach Tom Schurtz. “I think we played good, solid team defense, [Freshman] Cassie Denning had three opportunities late in the game to get in the right position and cause a little defensive energy, and she was a spark. You can talk about Bella’s 29 points, but really that game was won with Cassie’s spark in the fourth quarter.”
One of the sparks Schurtz was referring to came in the final 20 seconds with D-East holding a slender 47-46 lead and West Chester East bringing the ball upcourt. Denning reached out and stole the ball, dishing it to sophomore Caroline Brennan, who drove in for a layup and a 49-46 lead with 16.7 seconds to go.
“I think that’s one of the things we prode ourselves on, we’re going to play good, sound, physical defense for 32 minutes,” said Schurtz. “And Caroline did a great job on Marissa McDonald.”
McDonald, who is averaging 16.6 points per game this season, is a McDonald’s All-American nominee and a New Jersey Institute of Technology basketball commit.
“Marissa is a great player, and does so many things for us every night,” said West Chester East girls’ basketball head coach Erin Listrani. “She can play any position, and she works her butt off on both ends of the floor. She makes her teammates better every single day, starting in practice.”
Facing D-East’s tough defense, McDonald still led the Vikings with 17 points.
“Marissa is a tremendous player, tough to wrangle control over,” said Schurtz. “I’ve been watching her for four years, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the way she plays, the class with which she plays. I know NJIT is going to be happy to have her.”
Brennan added, “Marissa is a great player, she can use both hands, it was really hard to guard her tonight, but I knew my family [teammates] had my back on defense.”
West Chester East kept pace with D-East through the first quarter, which ended with the Cougars holding a slim 15-14 lead. Early in the second quarter, the visitors went on a 10-2 run to take a 25-16 lead, as Smuda took over, scoring on a variety of field goals.
The Vikings battled back late in the second quarter. Sophomore Megan Merten dropped in a trey from the right corner just before halftime to cut the Cougars’ lead to 27-25 at intermission.
Downingtown East took a hit when Smuda, who entered the game with a 20.2 ppg everage as well as 11.4 rpg, picked up her third foul with 1:22 left before halftime, and briefly came out.
Meanwhile, the hosts kept firing after halftime, getting scores underneath from the trio of McDonald, Merten and sophomore Lauren Klieber to take a 31-27 lead. That trio finished with 37 of the Vikings’ 46 points.
Klieber is averaging more than 11 points per game for West Chester East this winter.
“Lauren’s one of the hardest workers we have, she’s really put in lot of time in the off-season and it’s showing,” said Listrani. “And Megan gets better every single day, she does anything we ask her to do. And the good news is that she’s such a hard worker and is going to keep getting better.”
Midway through the third quarter, West Chester East took its largest lead of the night, at 37-31.
Smuda found her scoring touch again late in the third quarter, making two key baskets underneath to cut the Vikings’ lead to 39-38 by the end of the third quarter.
With the score tied at 41-41 and 3:37 to play, Smuda picked up her fourth foul of the night, and free throw by Mertens and a basket underneath by sophomore Mary Grace Kerns gave the hosts a 44-41 lead.
“With four fouls, I had to be careful with my swatting on my blocks, with how I played defense, I couldn’t do anything crazy,” said a smiling Smuda, who scored half of the Vikings’ eight points in the final three minutes.
Brennan, the Cougars’ second-leading scorer this season (9.2 ppg entering Thursday’s contest), scored underneath to cut the host’s lead to 44-43 with 2:28 left; then, in the final 90 seconds of the game, the lead changed hands three times. Smuda’s layup gave the Vkings a 46-45 lead; McDonald scored inside to put the hosts up 46-45, then Smuda tallied underneath to give the Cougars a 47-46 lead.
“We scrapped the whole game, and showed a lot by battling back from a big deficit in the second quarter,” said Listrani. “You’re not going to stop Bella Smuda, so you just want to contain her. She’s a great player, and Downingtown East is tough, every single year. I thought we did a nice job in trying to contain [Smuda]. You want to limit Bella’s touches as much as you can, because she can dominate, there’s no doubt about it.”
With 20 seconds left, Denning made her steal and Brennan drove in for the score to make it 49-46 with 16.7 seconds left.
“Caroline and Cassie are young, but they’re both great players,” said Smuda. “They’re going to be really good for us the rest of the season.”
Schurtz said, “We knew coming in that West Chester East was going to be a tough opponent; I told my girls before the game that we need to come out with energy and intensity. There was a moment in the game where, as a young team, with two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior on the floor, we could have faltered, but we didn’t, we relied on the sound defensive principles that we always do.”

Downingtown East 49, West Chester East 46
Downingtown East 15  12  11 11  – 49
West Chester East   14  11  14  7  – 46
Downingtown East (49): Denning 1 2-3 4, McFillin 2 0-0 5, Kent 0 2-4 2, Brennan 3 1-2 7, Smuda 14 1-2 29, Meakim 1 0-0 2, Geary 0 0-0 0, Totals 21 6-11 49.
West Chester East (46): Richardson 2 0-0 5, Douglas 0 0-0 0, Kerns 1 2-2 4, Klieber 5 1-2 11, M. McDonald 8 0-0 17, O. McDonald 0 0-0 0, Merten 3 3-4 9, Totals 19 6-8 46.
Three-point field goals: DE- McFillin; WCE – Richardson, M. McDonald.

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