Westlake Hangs On to Beat the Panthers in Playoff Opener

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Natalie Alfieri, Katherine Guttridge

Even with her team facing a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter, Pleasantville girls’ basketball coach Myndi Hill had a pretty good inkling that Saturday’s opening-round Class B playoff game at Westlake was far from over.

“Never doubted, never doubted,” she would say later about a late 13-2 Panther run that provided a frantic finish that may have been altered by a single rebound her players couldn’t secure with seven seconds remaining.

The host Wildcats somehow managed to hang on, getting a pair of free throws from Jesi Oswald with less than two seconds on the clock to seal a 52-47 victory. Viktoria Hudd finished with 14 points and Natalie Alfieri added 12 as Westlake advanced to a Wednesday afternoon quarterfinal meeting at second-seeded Briarcliff.

“You know, Pleasantville’s a tough, well-coached team, and this was a gritty win,” said Wildcats coach Sean Mayer afterwards. “We grinded it out. We made just as many free throws as we needed, and that was big.”

The seventh-seeded Wildcats had built a lead as large as 13 points late in the third quarter and went to the fourth holding a 39-30 advantage. A 3-pointer from the right elbow by Hudd with five and a half minutes to go left 10th-seeded Pleasantville trailing 46-34 and staring at the imminent end of its season.

But the Panthers, sparked by sophomore Paige Long, then went on their unlikely big run that provided Westlake with a huge scare. Paige’s steal and coast-to-coast layup with 31 seconds left moved Pleasantville within 48-44. Then a turnover by the Wildcats set the stage for an NBA range 3-pointer by Kristi Guttridge with 8.44 seconds on the clock that cut the Westlake lead to just one point.

“The last time we played, it was a one-point game,” said Mayer, recalling the teams’ previous meeting just over two weeks ago. “So I knew this one was gonna be a close one. I wasn’t expecting to put ‘em away. I knew it was gonna be back and forth.”

The Panthers might well have completed their impressive comeback had it not been for a rebound that got away shortly after the 3-pointer by Guttridge. When Westlake’s Alfieri was fouled intentionally with seven seconds remaining, she made her first attempt but missed the second. The battle for the rebound was won by P’ville, depriving the Wildcats of a golden opportunity to steal the game.

“I don’t think it was a mixed box out,” said the Panthers’ Hill. “I think it was kind of a free ball. It was a long rebound and they got it. But, you know what, that’s basketball. The way the ball bounces off the rim, you never know.”

With three seconds left, Rebecca Lovett made one of two foul shots, stretching Westlake’s lead to 50-47. The Panthers, out of timeouts, tried to throw a pass to the midcourt line. But the ball sailed out of bounds near the left sideline and, moments later, Oswald clinched the Wildcat victory with her two free throws.

“It shouldn’t come down to that one play,” said Hill about the ill-fated pass in the final moments. “There’s a lot of plays prior to that pass. But I’m so proud of our girls. They get every ounce of talent out of their bodies.”

The game had begun promisingly for Pleasantville as Isabelle Minerva connected on an 18-footer at the top of the key 25 seconds in, and soon the Panthers opened up an 8-3 advantage. But Westlake then closed the opening quarter with a 9-0 run, taking the lead for good when Lovett drained a 3-pointer out of the right corner with 1:33 left in the period.

The Panthers’ Amanda Skopetos scored nine of her game-high 17 points in the second quarter, helping Pleasantville stay close. Her drive through the lane with three seconds to go in the half cut Westlake’s lead to 24-20 at intermission.

Back-to-back fast-break layups by Hudd to start the third quarter sparked a 10-2 Westlake spurt that opened up a 12-point advantage. After a bucket by Page, who wound up with 14 points, a 3-pointer off the dribble by Oswald gave the Wildcats a 37-24 cushion. Pleasantville answered with three straight baskets before Westlake’s Sofia Catarino scored on a put-back with five seconds left in the quarter to slow the Panther momentum.

A 3-pointer by Jamie Perfito 90 seconds into the fourth quarter restored Westlake’s double-digit lead, and the game seemed all but over when Hudd added her trey a minute later. But the Panthers never folded and the final few minutes had far more drama than Westlake wanted to see.

“I can’t be more proud of this team,” said Hill. “This team has come back from 12, 14 down throughout the year. So I never doubted that they would do it. The last minute and a half, if we could’ve gotten a couple things go our way, it might’ve been a different end.”

So instead, it will be the Wildcats with the unenviable task of facing Briarcliff in the quarterfinals this week, with a trip to the Westchester County Center riding on the outcome.

“We’re gonna enjoy this and then we’ll be ready,” said Mayer about the prospect of facing the Bears. “We’re gonna give our best effort at Briarcliff.”

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