The path to a Section One championship for the Briarcliff girls’ basketball team has been blocked for quite some time by the Irvington Bulldogs, who most recently have ended the Bears’ title aspirations in the Class B finals the past two years.
But last Wednesday afternoon, playing on the Bulldogs’ elevated home floor, the Bears took a giant step toward finally putting an end to the decade-long Irvington dynasty. With Kacey Hamlin scoring 19 points and Alana Lombardi adding 18, they led Irvington start to finish and came away with a 52-43 statement victory over the four-time defending sectional champs.
“It’s always nice to beat the section champ,” said Briarcliff head coach Don Hamlin shortly after his Bears had improved to 5-0 this year. “It wasn’t pretty, but I was happy for them because they kind of a little bit got a monkey off their back. They beat us in the section final last year, so that’s significant. But it’s a December 12th game, early in the season, and I would just anticipate both teams getting better.”
Lombardi’s lightning-quick layup mere seconds after the game’s opening tip gave the Bears a lead they never relinquished. By the final minutes of the second quarter, the Briarcliff advantage had grown to 14 points and the Bulldogs never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
Late in the third quarter, the senior guard Hamlin hit on a runner in the lane and then soon added a pair of free throws to give the Bears their largest lead of the day, 37-21. But the period ended with the Bulldogs on an 8-0 run, assuring that the fourth quarter would have some drama.
“They still have a little of ‘they’re playing Irvington in their heads,’ so I don’t think they ever really settled down and played their best,” said coach Hamlin about his players. “I just felt like we needed to breathe a little bit. I think we got a little excited that we were up.”
The Bears, still waiting for the return of star senior Maddie Plank, out due to an offseason knee injury, opened up an 11-5 edge on Hamlin’s left-corner 3-pointer with 1:37 to go in the first quarter. Exactly a minute later, an inside bucket by Briarcliff sophomore center Jordan Smith closed the scoring for the period and gave the Bears a 13-8 lead.
An old-fashioned 3-point play by Smith to start the second quarter, followed by another jumper from Hamlin from beyond the arc, enabled the Bears to stretch their lead to 19-10. Midway through the quarter, a 7-0 Briarcliff spurt that began with a Lombardi 3-pointer and ended with a Smith put-back left Irvington, unbeaten at the start of the day, facing a 26-12 deficit.
Even though the Bears failed to score for six minutes starting late in the opening half, Irvington was only able to whittle five points off of their lead. A fast-break layup by Julia Barbalato, assisted by Julia Dalessandro, soon restored the 14-point Briarcliff cushion.
But after Hamlin’s two foul shots extended the Bears’ lead to 16 points, they went scoreless again the rest of the quarter, while the Bulldogs responded with four straight baskets to close within 37-29 heading to the final period. With three fouls on both Smith and Lombardi, the Bears had cause to be concerned.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the fourth quarter began with back-to-back baskets by Lombardi, who was the MVP of the Bears’ annual Booster Club Tournament a few days earlier. After a 5-0 Irvington run narrowed the Briarcliff lead to 41-34, Lombardi answered with a 15-foot pullup jumper and then Barbalato added two free throws to open up an 11-point lead again with 4:31 remaining.
Irvington was still within 49-40 with just over two minutes to go and Smith had already fouled out before Hamlin delivered the clinching basket. Open on the left elbow, she got the ball and connected on a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc to seal the outcome with 1:36 left on the clock.
“That was a big 3, yeah,” said coach Hamlin about the shot his daughter hit from just a few feet away from where he was watching. “That was the first time that I really felt, ‘You know what, we’re gonna win this game.’ Honestly, every time they made a run, we got a big basket and pushed it back to double figures. In those moments, we were pretty clutch.”
Whether or not the two teams wind up meeting in the sectional final for a third straight time, Hamlin is looking forward to soon having the multitalented Plank back on the court leading the Bears.
“We have to make sure when and if we get everybody back, we jell,” he said. “And that’s important. This team, as it’s constituted right now, has done a nice job coming together. Obviously Maddie’s gonna help us a lot. We’ve just gotta make sure that we continue to jell together. And the earlier she comes back, the more time we’ll have to do that.”