As he called for a timeout several minutes into the third quarter of Tuesday afternoon’s game, Briarcliff girls’ basketball coach Don Hamlin was just a bit livid. His players couldn’t make a shot and they were suddenly getting destroyed on the boards. Even worse, though, some of them had just displayed a lack of interest in diving to the floor in pursuit of a loose ball.
“Yeah, it looked like we stayed in the locker room a little too long,” Hamlin would say later. “We’ve gotta find a way to fix that — come out and maybe run a little before we play.”
Fortunately for the Bears, they had already built a 14-point halftime advantage and were never seriously threatened after that. With Alana Lombardi and Kacey Hamlin combining to score 27 points, Briarcliff earned a 47-36 victory over the St. Joseph Cougars in the “Girls’ Challenge” of the 19th annual Slam Dunk Tournament at the Westchester County Center.
“We played well at times, but we just didn’t play with the energy I felt like we should’ve played with,” said coach Hamlin after collecting the 350th win of his career. “I don’t know, I think they should’ve been really flying around in here. For whatever reason, we were a little hesitant. I’ll try to look at the film and figure it out.”
St. Joseph, a city school nestled about halfway between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Barclays Center, managed to stay even with the Bears through most of the first quarter despite a pair of early 3-pointers by junior guard Hamlin, who earned game MVP honors for stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals.
A free throw late in the quarter by Kelly O’Donnell gave Briarcliff a one-point lead it would never relinquish. A 17-footer by Kaitlyn Ryan soon followed and the Bears took a 12-9 edge into the second period. But they were still only leading by two points after a short jumper by the Cougars’ Farrah Pitt before a put-back basket by freshman center Jordan Smith started a 12-0 Bears’ blitz that closed the half and opened a 28-14 cushion.
But the Bears, who struggled from the field all day and wound up making just 13 of their 47 shots, were outscored 8-1 to start the third quarter. A 3-point shot by Raven Pitt with 3:23 left in the period cut the Briarcliff lead to 29-22. The Bears’ first bucket of the quarter, a 3-pointer by Ryan, didn’t come until more than five minutes had elapsed.
A 3-pointer by Hamlin with 2:27 left in the third quarter stretched the Briarcliff lead back up to 35-24 and St. Joseph, last year’s CHSAA Class B champion for Brooklyn/Queens, never got any closer than nine points the rest of the way. Lombardi, a star sophomore who endured her second straight poor-shooting game, did make a couple of baskets early in the final period, enabling the Bears to build their largest lead of the contest, 43-27.
The Cougars, though, then went on a 7-0 run, closing to within nine points on Akellia Bowens’ only basket of the day. But a layup by Smith on a pass from Lombardi over the top of the St. Joseph full-court press gave Briarcliff a 46-34 lead with 2:05 left on the clock and all but sealed the victory.
“We found a way to push ourselves through the win, but we need to play better,” said coach Hamlin, whose team was competing in a near-empty and silent gym just days after its early-season showdown with rival Irvington drew a full house and created a playoff atmosphere.”
“It was actually more difficult than I thought it should’ve been,” added Hamlin about trying to increase the energy he was getting from his players in front of the sparse crowd at the County Center. “I was all excited about coming here. I thought we should’ve been. Day after Christmas, we’ve got all the excuses. But my thing is, what a great opportunity to get here and play. It’s a really special place… Any time you get an opportunity to play here, you’ve got to grab it.”
The Bears, now 7-1 this season, start the new calendar year with a home game against Westlake on Wednesday afternoon and the expectation that junior standout Maddie Plank, who has now missed the last half dozen games with a wrist injury, will soon be back on the court.
“She’s close,” said Hamlin. “I’m hoping, if not right after the break, then soon after the break she’ll be ready to go. She just gives us a different element. It gives us somebody else you have to guard. Her overall play just gives us another weapon and helps us defensively, helps us on the boards. She does a lot of things.”