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Springfield turns up defense in Central League playoff preview

SPRINGFIELD —There was hot pizza from Thunderbird and lots of homemade goodies in the cafeteria for a post-game party honoring Springfield’s senior players Tuesday night.

Before they could feast, though, seniors Lexi Aaron, Taylor Hunyet, Kaitlyn Kearney, Anabel Kreydt, Mia Valero and Sophia Ward had to put on a show and defeat a much-improved Penncrest squad looking to make a good impression on the Cougars. The teams meet again Thursday, same time and location, in the quarterfinal round of the Central League tournament.

“All of our nerves and excitement, I think it kind of got to us in the beginning,” Valerio said. “We came out a little hectic.”

No worries. The Cougars eventually got their act together and rolled to a 44-27 victory. It was far from smooth sailing in the first half, but Springfield’s tremendous defense and hustle were the difference after halftime.

Springfield (18-4, 14-2) is the No. 3 seed in the Central League playoffs. Penncrest (14-8, 9-7) will be the sixth and final seed in the tournament.

The upstart Lions hung around for a quarter or two, but the Cougars forced the visitors into 23 turnovers and held them to 11 points in the second half.

“We are told in practice that we have to get up and pressure, no matter what,” Hunyet said. “It just makes it harder for them to catch the ball or get it into the post. It’s really big for us to get up and pressure as much as we can. We know we can’t make it easy for them.”

Coach Ky McNichol was proud of her team’s third quarter, in which the Cougars outscored the Lions, 14-2, and effectively put what had been a close game to bed. Aaron, Hunyet, Kearney and Valerio each made a pair of steals. Hunyet is consistently one of the Cougars’ top defenders.

“When Lexi went down last year (with a season-ending injury), I felt then that I had to pick up my all-around game. And this year my defense is something that I really wanted to focus on,” Hunyet said. “Whether it’s post defense or guard defense, I wanted to be able to guard everyone. So that was a big focus for me … and I think I’ve been doing pretty good.”

Kearney made a pair of clutch baskets and had three rebounds, an assist and a steal in the third period. Aaron had four points, two assists and two steals. Valerio made a shot and grabbed three rebounds. Everyone is always doing something to make a difference on Springfield. It’s not always pretty — they shot 17-for-54 from the floor — but the Cougars win many of their games by out-hustling and being tougher than the opposition. And that was the case Tuesday.

Kearney mentioned the win the Cougars enjoyed last Saturday against Upper Dublin, when Springfield held a District 1 Class 6A playoff team to nine total points.

“We had a great defensive battle and that was a really good game for us,” said Kearney, who finished with nine points Tuesday. “We got off to a slow start tonight but after we settled in a little, we came out and we really pushed the ball a lot in the third quarter, which helped us pull away.”

Valerio – who had nine points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals — is hoping for a similar result against the Lions Thursday.

“The playoffs is all that matters right now. It was good to see what they run, to see what worked and what didn’t work,” she said. “Knowing that we just played them tonight, that will definitely help us prepare for Thursday.”

Bailey Garrison had a team-high eight points for the Lions. Kathryn Harding added six points, two steals and two blocks.

The Lions were able to compete with the Cougars for one half. Senior guard Kyra Curci wants to prove that the Lions can stay with them the entire way Thursday.

“We had them in the first half, but we have to stick with them for a whole game,” Curci said. “On Thursday we just have to show that we can do it. We have to come out strong.”

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