As the Pleasantville girls’ basketball team rattled off 10 consecutive points to start the fourth quarter, slicing what had been a 21-point deficit down to just one, there was the temptation to check the scorers’ table to see if the black and white visage of Rod Serling materialized there to inform everyone that the host Briarcliff Bears didn’t know it yet, but they had just entered the twilight zone.
Last Wednesday afternoon’s matchup between the neighboring rivals turned into a bizarre battle in which the Bears, not unexpectedly, built a huge lead before the young Panther squad, very unexpectedly, roared back to even the contest with exactly three minutes to go.
As it turned out, though, Briarcliff scored the final eight points down the stretch and emerged with a surprisingly close 61-53 win over the upset-minded Panthers. Maddie Plank scored the go-ahead basket and wound up with a game-high 27 points as the Bears finished undefeated in league play and secured the top seed in the Class B sectional playoffs.
“It was good for us,” said Bears head coach Don Hamlin after his team had been severely tested on its Senior Day right before playoff time. “I thought Pleasantville played great and we found a way to win the game.”
The Bears, forced now to play without sophomore center Jordan Smith, who tore the ACL in her right knee three games earlier, seemed to be in complete command against Pleasantville through the first two and a half quarters. They got seven early points from Alana Lombardi and jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead. An 8-0 burst over the final 95 seconds gave them a 23-9 cushion after one quarter.
“Well, the game plan from the start was to deaden the clock to try to limit their possessions,” said Panthers first-year head coach Dillon Clark. “They remind me very much of the old Ossining teams the way they move the ball and get it down the floor and the number of finishers they have, and the strength of the girls to make full-court outlet passes. So that’s gotta be an emphasis.”
A trio of Panther turnovers in the first minute of the second quarter turned into three baskets for Briarcliff. Lombardi, who finished with 21 points, had the first two and Kacey Hamlin, who provided 13 points, had the third one, which pushed the Bears’ run to 14-0 and opened up a 20-point lead.
Sophomore Julia O’Reilly, the Panthers’ leading scorer with 13 points, connected on back-to-back 3-pointers late in the second quarter, cutting the Briarcliff lead to 33-21. But P’ville went scoreless over the final 2:40 of the half and trailed at intermission by 16 points.
The Bears, 18-2 this season, started the second half with a put-back basket by Plank, who erupted for 12 of the 14 Briarcliff points in the third quarter. A drive through the lane for a bucket by Plank with 3:39 to go in the period gave the Bears a seemingly insurmountable 46-29 advantage. But the Panthers answered with a 9-2 burst, closing within 10 points on a layup by Analese Picart.
A Plank 3-pointer from just left of the key stretched the Bears’ lead to 51-38 before O’Reilly closed the third quarter with a short jumper from the right baseline with eight seconds remaining.
“We told the girls at halftime, the goal was to get to 10,” said Clark. “We got to 11, and then we had a tie with a little bit to go before seniors stepped up on Senior Night, as they should.”
The basket by O’Reilly at the end of the third quarter began a 15-2 Panther run that deadlocked the game at 53 apiece with three minutes to go. The fourth period started with a 15-foot jumper by Mary Grace O’Neill. Freshman Dakota Corey followed with a foul-line pop and then a 3-pointer from the left elbow. Tina Matica, who scored all 11 of her points after halftime, soon brought P’ville within 51-50 with another trey.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, after a 3-pointer by Jenna McAllister tied the game they never scored again the rest of the way. Plank’s put-back basket while getting fouled with 2:10 left after a couple of Briarcliff offensive rebounds gave the Bears a 56-53 lead. Then with 1:38 on the clock, Hamlin received a pass right of the key from Plank out of the post and drained a 3-pointer that dashed the Pleasantville upset hopes.
“We got a timeout when they tied it and we just told ‘em to calm down,” said coach Hamlin. “I felt like we went through a long period of just watching whoever shot the ball for our team and we didn’t hit the offensive boards at all. The possession that we took the lead, I think we had three offensive rebounds and finally finished. That turned it. We stopped watching and started playing a little bit.”
“Obviously you’re frustrated to lose, you always want to win,” said the Panthers’ Clark, whose 15-5 team earned the seventh seed in the Class B playoffs. “But, I mean, the second-ranked team in the state, we had ‘em tied with two minutes to go in the game. It’s anyone’s ballgame, and their players made plays. I couldn’t be happier with the performance. It just shows that we can play with the top team.”
The Bears, meanwhile, will be looking to take the next step, even without Smith, after losing in the final the past two years. Their three stars scored all of Briarcliff’s points in the regular-season finale, and Hamlin doesn’t think the pressure to finally hoist the Gold Ball will be too much.
“I think they’ll be fine,” he said. “They’ve done a lot this year to prepare themselves, and we’ve found a way in tight games to do what we do best. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do that.”