After losing six of its first nine games this season, the Fox Lane girls’ basketball team stepped onto its own home floor late Wednesday afternoon desperately in need of a victory.
“Oh my God, so badly I can’t even tell you,” head coach Kris Matts would concede shortly after his struggling team found a way to emerge with a 44-40 win over the Eastchester Eagles in a game that for a while reminded him of some others he had already seen his Foxes lose during the 2017 portion of the schedule.
“This was the same story over again,” he said. “We were dominating early, we start to lose it a little bit, then start to fatigue. The old things started creeping in — the offensive rebounds, turnovers — and then all of a sudden we’re in a nail biter. Every game prior to this has turned around at that point and we’ve lost.”
This time, though, the Foxes held Eastchester scoreless over the game’s final three minutes and closed with a 7-2 run that enabled them to overcome the 38-37 deficit they faced with 5:07 remaining. A 3-pointer from the left corner by Natalie Pence, her fifth of the game, broke the last tie of the day with 4:17 to go and gave Fox Lane the lead for good.
“The fact we were dominating, we had the scare and we closed it out, I think is gonna be really big for the mentality of the girls going forward,” said Matts. “This is a huge pick-me-up. Huge, because we’ve been is so many games where we haven’t been able to close it out.”
The Foxes, led by senior star Maria Violante, who scored eight of her 13 points in the opening quarter, built a 15-11 advantage heading to the second period. Pence provided her second trey of the day just 50 seconds into the second quarter and the Foxes suddenly had a seven-point cushion. They built their largest lead of the game, 22-13, with exactly four minutes left in the half as Leah Figueroa connected on another 3-pointer.
But Eastchester immediately answered with a 9-0 spurt that started and ended with baskets from Angelina Porcello, tying the game with 1:25 to go before halftime. A free throw by Lucy Crerend with 40 seconds left gave Fox Lane a 23-22 edge at intermission.
Once the third quarter got underway, both teams struggled mightily shooting the ball and the score didn’t change at all until Pence finally nailed a pullup 3-pointer from the top of the key just over four and a half minutes in. Another Pence 3-pointer, this time from the right corner, stretched the Foxes’ lead to 32-26 with 1:35 left in the period.
The Eagles closed the third quarter with baskets from Fiona Teahan and Nicole Patrylow to slice the Fox Lane lead to just two points. Violante, who recently reached the 1000-point milestone and tormented Eastchester by grabbing 18 rebounds and blocking 12 shots, scored underneath on a dish from Crerend to give the Foxes a 36-32 lead with 6:45 left in the game.
“When you have one of the best players in the state, you know with Maria, it’s a blessing and curse,” said Matts. “It’s a blessing because all anyone does is get her the ball and magic happens. The bad thing is sometimes there are blinders on. They’re just looking at her and they’re not realizing that they have potential. There’s girls on this team that are going to become leaders as soon as they realize that they can.”
Eastchester grabbed its first, and only, lead of the second half when senior guard Cassidy Mitchell made a pair of free throws with 5:07 left on the clock. A foul shot by Melanie Matts tied the game with 4:44 to go, then 27 seconds later Pence, who finished with a game-high 15 points and added half a dozen rebounds and steals, came through with the 3-pointer that gave Fox Lane the lead for good.
A basket by Patricia Murtagh moved the Eagles to within 41-40 with 3:15 remaining, but they never scored again. Perhaps the biggest play of the final moments came after Pence missed two straight foul shots with 25.8 seconds left. Teammate Adriana Picolino, only a freshman, managed to grab an offensive rebound, setting the stage for a Crerend free throw with 21 seconds remaining and then two more from Violante that sealed the outcome with 12.9 seconds to go.
“Adriana Picolino, she is 150 percent heart,” said Matts. “Her heart is bigger than her entire body. She’s a power forward and she’s shorter than some guards. But she just hustles, dives for everything. She made the difference tonight on every loose ball and I’m really proud of her.”
The way his players battled their way down the stretch to a big win over the Eagles now has Matts hoping that the Foxes have finally turned a corner.
“The season stands on a knife edge in situations like this,” he said. “If you lose, the confidence starts to go away and it’s hard to have those speeches anymore where it’s like, ‘We can do this. We can do this.’ But you win, then you can gain momentum. To come out with a victory in this tough-fought game, I think is really gonna put wind in their sails going forward.”