With the graduation of two-thirds of the heralded star triumvirate that led the Briarcliff girls’ basketball team to the last three Class B sectional finals, the 2019-20 season figures to be one of transition for the Bears.
But they showed this past weekend that they’re far more likely reloading than rebuilding. Led by senior guard Alana Lombardi, the lone holdover from the team’s Big Three of recent years, the Bears once again managed to capture the championship of their annual Booster Club Tournament.
Lombardi finished with a team-high 18 points, earning tourney MVP honors as Briarcliff defeated the Hastings Yellow Jackets 71-62 late Saturday afternoon in the title game of the event’s 20th anniversary. The Bears opened up a 23-point advantage late in the third quarter, saw it dwindle to just six midway through the fourth, but held on improve to 3-0 this season.
“It’s a great lesson,” said Bears coach Don Hamlin after his players withstood the late surge from the Yellow Jackets. “Sports keeps you humble. You’re up 23 and the next thing you know you’re up six. You’re feeling real good and then you have to find a way to adjust. And luckily we did.”
The Bears, who rolled over a late-arriving Poughkeepsie team 70-23 in Friday evening’s opening round behind a combined 29 points from Lombardi and impressive freshman Cat Carrafiello, were pushed to the limit by Hastings, which chopped its huge deficit to just 62-56 on a jump shot by Melannie Daley with 3:40 remaining.
But the Yellow Jackets’ speedy junior guard was whistled for her fifth foul just five seconds later and the Bears took advantage of her absence to go on a 60-second, 7-0 burst that sealed the outcome. Carrafiello’s 3-pointer from the right elbow with 2:37 on the clock stretched the Briarcliff lead back up to 69-56 and enabled Hamlin and his players to finally exhale.
“The whole time I was just trying to get us to calm down,” he said after watching Hastings use runs of 11-0, then 13-3 to get back in the game. “Most of that time we had two freshmen on the floor that played great the whole game. But they got in a big hurry and it got contagious. We all kind of got in a hurry.”
In the turnover-plagued first half, Hastings built an early 10-6 lead before the Bears closed the first quarter on a 9-2 run, sparked by Carrafiello, who provided seven of the points after being summoned from the Briarcliff bench. The Yellow Jackets took their last lead of the game, 16-15, two minutes into the second period when Violet Bowen-Rink banked in a 15-foot jumper.
After junior center Jordan Smith tied the contest with a free throw, Kaitlyn Ryan gave the Bears the lead for good when she supplied an old-fashioned 3-point play. Briarcliff wound up on a 13-1 burst that opened up an 11-point lead. The half ended with back-to-back fast-break layups from freshman Caroline Barbalato and Ryan that gave the Bears a 34-21 cushion.
Lombardi was called for her third foul less than a minute into the second half and Smith picked up her third a few minutes later. That that didn’t seem any cause for concern, though, because a 3-pointer from the right corner by Lombardi with 2:47 to go in the third quarter stretched the Briarcliff lead to a whopping 50-27. But Daley erupted for six points in the midst of an 11-0 Hastings blitz that cut the Bears’ big lead nearly in half. A long 3-pointer by Jillian Pena just before the buzzer enabled the Yellow Jackets to start the fourth quarter trailing just 53-41.
Baskets from Lombardi, Smith and Julia Dalessandro in the first two minutes of the final period rebuilt the lead back up to 16 points before Hastings responded with its 13-3 spurt that suddenly left the outcome in doubt.
Three free throws from Lombardi and one by senior point guard Julia Barbalato gave the Bears a bit of breathing room before Carrafiello delivered her game-sealing trey with just over two and a half minutes remaining. Hastings scored the final six points of the night, but it was too little and late.
“Hastings was a really strong team,” said Lombardi. “We knew they would be strong coming out. But we just told each other, ‘Listen, we’ve got to play defense and move the ball and just do what we do.’ We were definitely getting a little bit tired toward the end of the game. We told each other we’ve got to buckle down right now, play the best defense we can, get on the offensive boards and our time will come. We’ll finish our shots. We’ll be OK.”
While Lombardi is left this season to fend for herself without the assistance of Maddie Plank and KC Hamlin, she is pleased to have Smith back on the court for the Bears contributing the way she was before a late-season ACL tear ended her 2018-19 campaign and, perhaps, the team’s golden opportunity for an elusive sectional championship.
“Jordan is literally our key player out there,” said Lombardi. “She’s so intimidating and big and she’s so fast. No one can guard her out there if she’s fully healthy. So she makes a huge difference on our team.”
Coach Hamlin, too, is delighted to have Smith back on the court and relishing the fact “when she practices, you can’t even tell that she’s ever been injured. She looks great.”
How far Lombardi and Smith, along with the emergence of the supporting cast, can take Briarcliff this year remains to be seen. But for now Hamlin is content that his team got quite an early-season challenge during its own holiday tournament.
“It’s invaluable,” he said. “It was perfect, actually. You couldn’t draw it up better. Obviously you don’t want to give up that big of a lead. But you want to see what happens when we do. And we collected ourselves and we were good. Of course it gives me something to work on Monday.”
Andy is a sports editor at Examiner Media, covering seven high schools in the mid-Westchester region with a notebook and camera. He began there in the fall of 2007 following 15 years as a candid photographer for the largest school picture company in the tri-state area.