For the Briarcliff girls’ basketball team, Sunday afternoon’s Section 1, Class B championship game turned into yet another painful reminder that the decade-long Irvington dynasty is still far from over.
The top-seeded Bulldogs used a 13-2 first-quarter run to seize control over the Bears and never looked back, winning their fourth successive sectional championship with a convincing 74-64 victory at Pace University’s Goldstein Fitness Center. Despite a bravura 39-point performance from junior star Maddie Plank, the Bears were left to ponder a second consecutive loss to Irvington in the Class B final.
“I don’t know,” said Bears head coach Don Hamlin afterwards, struggling to explain how another showdown with Irvington went the Bulldogs’ way. “We didn’t play as well as we hoped. Honestly, to the bitter end, I thought we were gonna find a way to figure it out. We just never got over the hump.”
Plank, the smooth-shooting southpaw who verbally committed to Princeton late in the season, exploded for 25 of her points after halftime when the second-seeded Bears were desperately trying to whittle away at a Bulldog lead as large as 17 points. Her 3-pointer with 3:10 left in the game capped a 14-3 Briarcliff run that sliced a 62-45 deficit to just six points. But, unfortunately for the Bears, they never got any closer.
“Yeah, Maddie tried to put us on her back,” said Hamlin. “She played a phenomenal game. We just needed a couple other people to play well. We just didn’t quite get there.”
The Bears actually started the day as if their time to hoist the champion’s Gold Ball was about to arrive. Just 13 seconds after the opening tip, sophomore Alana Lombardi connected on a 3-point shot from the left corner. Plank’s first bucket of the game, on a drive through the lane, gave Briarcliff a 5-3 lead. Lombardi soon made a steal and went coast to coast for a layup to provide a 7-5 edge almost three minutes into the contest.
But Irvington, winners now of eight of the last nine sectional titles, proceeded to score 10 straight points and never trailed again. Back-to-back baskets from Plank moved the Bears within 18-13, but the first quarter ended with the Bulldogs getting a 3-pointer from Abby Conklin and a buzzer-beating layup by Mary Brereton to build a 10-point cushion.
The Bulldogs had no trouble picking apart the Briarcliff defense in the opening quarter, making eight of their 10 shots from the field, including four of five from beyond the 3-point arc. And even though Irvington dropped down to 29 percent in the second quarter, the Bears were unable to take advantage and chip away at the double-digit lead. It took an old-fashioned 3-point play from Plank with 20 seconds left in the half just to get the Bears within 35-25 at the break.
“They were on fire and we were playing catchup the whole game,” said Hamlin. “We just never got to the point where we got comfortable defensively. They did a great job running their stuff and we didn’t.”
Irvington’s Olivia Valdes and Conklin both made 3-pointers early in the third quarter, enabling the Bulldogs to stretch their lead to 41-27. Even though Plank wound up scoring 11 points in the period, Briarcliff never got any closer than nine points. The quarter ended with three straight baskets by the Bulldogs, who opened up a 55-40 advantage against the overwhelmed Bears.
The lead grew to 17 points when Kelly Degnan, who finished with a team-high 23 points, provided a conventional 3-point play on a layup while getting fouled with 5:24 left on the clock. But then Plank scored six points and junior guard Kacey Hamlin added four more in the midst of the 14-3 Bear burst that added some late-game suspense.
Plank’s 15-foot pullup jumper from the right baseline with 2:45 to go cut the Irvington lead to 66-61. But she missed a pair of free throws with 1:44 left and a layup by Degnan 20 seconds later gave the Bulldogs a 70-61 margin. Plank’s 3-pointer from the right elbow with 1:10 remaining again moved the Bears within six, but a pair of foul shots by both Valdes and Conklin sealed the Irvington win.
“The whole game, really, we just missed so many foul shots,” said Hamlin, whose team finished just six of 15 from the charity stripe. “We didn’t help ourselves there at all.”
The Bears, 21-2 this season, with both losses to Irvington, had advanced to the championship game by defeating Putnam Valley 44-31 in a semifinal game played at the Westchester County Center last Monday night. Plank finished with 15 points and Lombardi added 12 for the Bears, who held the Tigers to just 12 second-half points.
But they had no answer six days later against experienced Irvington, so now the big-three core of Plank, Lombardi and Kacey Hamlin is down to one last chance together to put an end to their rival’s longtime dominance in Class B.
“I guess you can either tank or try to get stronger. Hopefully we’ll do the latter,” said coach Hamlin, whose players will likely find out in 52 weeks if the third time can indeed be the charm. “They’ve all had amazing moments this season. It’s not on them. We got outcoached, we got outplayed. It happens.”