In a hard-fought contest March 1, Rye Country Day defeated Poly Prep 50-43 in double overtime to win the NYSAIS Championship.
By Melanie Cane
In a hard-fought contest March 1, Rye Country Day defeated Poly Prep 50-43 in double overtime to win the NYSAIS Championship. Down by three with 20 seconds left in regulation, guard Nereida Mendez nailed a 3-point jump shot and center Tara Berger blocked a last second shot attempt by Poly Prep to send the game into overtime. Tied at 43 in the second overtime, and, with under two minutes left, Taylor Reagan and Berger hit back-to-back jump shots to give the Wildcats a cushion. They were able to close out the game on the foul line.
Rye Country Day had four girls in double figures. Co-Captains Mendez and Berger scored 14 and 12 points, respectively. Berger also had 11 rebounds and five blocks to her credit. Emily Moran and Taylor Reagan, both sophomores, ended the game with 11 points.
Berger summed up the final: “This was an amazing team win with so many of my teammates stepping up to make big plays. We had to win four games in six days, which shows that we were well conditioned and tough. Winning the States was my goal from our first practice this season, and I am so happy for our coaches, players, and especially the five seniors.”
To reach the championship, the Wildcats had to get past Holy Child and top-seeded Dalton. They bested Holy Child 58-37, and Dalton 58-48.
Before the tournament, when the Wildcats played their crosstown rival, Holy Child, at home on February 18, they were caught off guard, literally, by the Gryphons’ offensive and defensive panache, and lost 48-33. In that game, Holy Child freshman Victoria Hanley had 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 steals. Senior Elizabeth Eiden had 10 points and 14 rebounds; and senior Captains Cristiana Guttridge and Elizabeth Curcio displayed great defense and even better leadership. The Gryphons’ enthusiasm and confidence propelled them to that eighth consecutive win; it also ended the Wildcats’ nine-game winning streak. Gryphon Coach Mike Duignan said it took a team effort to upend a talented Rye Country Day team.
Fast-forward to February 25, the NYSAIS quarterfinal game at Rye Country Day. The fourth-seeded Wildcats were fully prepared to avenge that loss to the No. 5 Gryphons. The Wildcats got off to a fast start, playing with unrivaled intensity. Nery Mendez opened the game with a 3-pointer and Zoe Verni followed with a fast break layup off a steal a few seconds later. Holy Child’s Dulce DelPriore answered with a shot from the key, but then Tara Berger scored off a fast break rebound and Verni followed that with another lay-up off a pass interception.
Coach Duignan called a time out less than two minutes into the quarter, but once they were back in action the Wildcats continued where they left off. Berger scored again before Verni was fouled going up for an inside shot and she sank both foul shots. Rye Country Day had a 13-2 lead less than three minutes into the game, and the play became so frenetic that girls were on the ground scrambling for ball possession.
With 3:43 left in the quarter and the Wildcats up 17-6, Coach Duignan called another time out. The tide shifted momentarily when the Wildcats gave up their first turnover and committed their first foul. But they quickly regained their composure and their dominance, taking a 25-12 lead into the second quarter.
The teams played much more evenly and by halftime, the Gryphons had come within 10, at 36-26.
The third quarter saw more frantic play with the Wildcats outscoring the Gryphons 10-4 and the Gryphons getting into foul trouble. Rye Country Day took a 46-30 lead into the fourth quarter. Their 58-37 win propelled them into the semifinals.
Coach Duignan gave all the credit to the Wildcats. “They are a good team and they started fast.We fought back, but that took a lot of effort. In the second half we lost some offensive continuity and our shots didn’t fall. Rye Country Day handled our defensive pressure well and capitalized… That’s what good teams do.” He added, “I’m proud of our team. As we traveled down our basketball road together we gained experience and confidence. Then we meshed together as a cohesive unit. We improved throughout the season and learned a few life lessons along the way — sacrifice, effort, teamwork, and perseverance. We traveled well.”
Wildcats Coach Scottie Nails said that having seen Holy Child so recently was a huge advantage, because they knew exactly what they had to do to change the outcome of the previous game. “It was all about defense and shutting down their offensive dynamo, Hanley and point guard Guttridge… both lefties.” He credited Zoe Verni who guarded Hanley and held her to three points. “Along with Zoe, Tara Berger and Nery Mendez led the defense, and all games are won on the defensive end. Emily Moran and Jenn Howland helped out too, especially offensively.”
Both Rye Country Day and Holy Child started in the New England Tournament, which began on Wednesday. Local fans are hopeful that there will be a rematch.
— Photos by Melanie Cane and Janelle Berger