Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Hornets break ‘free’ to upend Eagles

Damascus 50, Seneca Valley 45

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It wasn’t exactly Wembley Stadium at the World Cup, but the Seneca Valley gymnasium was fairly loud towards the end of its school’s girls basketball game against Damascus. It was a close game throughout, and the fans didn’t make it easy on their guests.

The catcalls came in vociferous bunches. ‘‘Free throws win games!” Or even the more succinct, ‘‘You’re gonna choke!”

They didn’t.

After falling behind by a point, Hornets Jamie Kaufman, and forwards Sam Edwards and Katie Gladhill hit six straight free throws in the final 43 seconds and got two critical defensive stops in between, allowing Damascus to overcome a slow start and battle to a 50-45 win over the Eagles last Wednesday night.

‘‘We shoot free throws every day in practice — it’s just a matter of, ‘Can you shoot them with pressure, and stay focused with everybody in the stands?’” said Kaufman, who scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds on the night. ‘‘A win’s a win, but I wasn’t really impressed with the way we played. I’m impressed with our composure, though.”

That poise was necessary in various stages of the game for Damascus, who fell behind early and late. After jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead, it was essentially dominated by the host Eagles the rest of the first half. Seneca Valley sophomore guard Audrey Cunningham shredded the Hornet’s box-and-one defense specifically designed to prevent her outside shooting, netting 14 of her game-high 21 points in the opening half. Combined with forward Andrea Bason, who pitched in all nine of her points in the first two periods, the Eagles cruised to a 28-19 halftime lead.

‘‘We’re going to need games like that from players aside from Audrey and [second-leading scorer] Kelsey Wolfe,” said Seneca Valley head coach Todd Bumgardner. ‘‘We’re a little shorthanded now — our only true inside player, Jamie Wingo, had season-ending elbow surgery, so we’re going to have a hard time inside and getting rebounds. Our smaller players are just going to need to outwork and out-execute everybody. But I thought we played one of our better games.”

Seemingly the instant the third quarter began, though, everything began to change. The Hornets rattled off a 7-0 run almost immediately, and senior Sammie Kroll’s third three-pointer capped a 14-2, putting her team up 33-30 late in the third quarter.

And once again, with the game in the balance, they showed the reserve that’s buoyed them to six victories this season, all but one by single digits. They trailed by four just 90 seconds to play, but point guard Raquel Villacarlos nailed a huge three-ball from the corner to cut it to one. And after Kaufman’s free throws, the Hornets got two huge defensive stops. First, guard Emily Balmer tied up Cunningham with the possession-arrow pointing Damascus’ way, and then Gladhill drew a charge on Seneca Valley guard Kelsey Wolfe with just 12 seconds remaining. Her ensuing trip to the charity stripe led to the points that put the game away.

‘‘You know what? We won, and at the end of the day, you go home with a smile on your face when you outscore the other team and you go to bed,” said Damascus head coach Steve Pisarski. ‘‘We’re 6-2, we can smile about the win, but you can’t be happy about the way you played, otherwise you’re going to play someone even better and they’re going to beat you by 40. [Paint Branch head coach] Heather Podosek and [Clarskburg’s] Sissy Natoli were here and I’m sure they were liking what they saw. But, you know, every game’s a different game.”