Dateline – Britt Road Recreation Center, Norcross: An ancient proverb states that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Saturday evening’s basketball battle between your beloved Lady Cougars and the Hawks of Al Falah Academy stands as an extreme illustration of this truth. For basketball coinsures who live for offensive displays, a la the 1980s L.A. Lakers Showtime fast break, the present day Golden State Warriors splash brothers attack, or the Running Rebels of UNLV circa 1991, this game offered absolutely nothing of value. However, to those who thrive on physical play, venerate the memory of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys, and harbor a guilty affection for mixed martial arts steel cage matches, the Saturday game will forever live in memory as an absolute Rembrandt. In the most physical ladies basketball game ever witnessed by this writer, the Lady Cougars willed themselves to a last second victory in a hostile lair.
The first half witnessed a strange amalgamation of textbook defense, player on player collisions, hand checking more akin to action on a line of scrimmage, a bevy of referee whistles, a raucous crowd, enough “bricks” to build a mansion, and two entirely discombobulated offenses. TCS struck first on a short bank shot by center Brandy Michelle Finnell. After a number of failed offensive possessions, AL Falah knotted the game with a bucket of their own. Those two field goals represented all of the scoring over the first frame of the game. Unbelievably, the second quarter witnessed even fewer points. A Maria Knezek foul shot provided all of the Lady Cougars’ scoring, while the Lady Hawks scored from the inside to claim a 4 -3 advantage as the halftime buzzer sounded.
If anything the elbows, hand checks, pushes, and collisions cranked up exponentially. Al Falah knocked down a basket, while the Lady Hawks held the visitors absolutely scoreless for the duration of the third quarter. Only a flurry of steals, attentive rebounding, and close attention to defensive rotations by the Cougars kept the score tight, preventing an incipient rout. Early in the final stanza the Lady Hawks added traded two more baskets with a pair of Knezek drives to boast a 10 – 7 edge with well under two minutes remaining in the contest, and with Al Falah in possession of the ball. Knowing that it was now or never, TCS turned back the hosts’ offensive foray, and worked the ball down to Finnell who promptly drew contact from a defender. Finnell calmly banked in the second of the two free throws to draw her team to within two points. Al Falah activated their offense, only to encounter a modified full court press. Under the pressure, Julia Baumohl ended up with the basketball, with two defenders in front of her. Looking up court, Baumohl found a streaking Knezek breaking ahead of the field. Knezek caught the quick pass in stride and banked home a layup that tied the game. With plenty of time left for a well-executed possession, the Al Falah players assembled for a final game winning push. Again the Lady Cougars’ extended defense wreaked havoc with their intended offensive set, generating another turnover. The home town defenders raced back to foil the TCS bid to win on a quick fast break score. Fittingly, the winning hoop came after a no-holds barred melee in the paint. Somehow, Finnell banged her way past a pair of Lady Hawks to corral an offensive rebound, which she promptly banked high off the backboard. The ball ricocheted off the glass with plenty of spin, and fell through the basket, securing Cottage a 12 – 10 lead. With about three ticks on the clock, TCS defender Natalie Yager stepped up to cover the Al Falah inbounder, spoiling any chance for quick trip up the court. After inbounding the ball on a short slant pass, the TCS defenders stepped up to prevent any trip past halfcourt as time expired.
Pandemonium broke loose as an exhausted band of Lady Cougars celebrated the win at halfcourt. The players and coaches extend their thanks to the many fans who braved the monsoon conditions to show their support. Their vocal engagement served to push the team through a most physically and mentally challenging game.
The three headed guard rotation of Natalia Hoeve, Natalie Yager, and Maria Knezek provided the starting backcourt for the evening. Hoeve grabbed a board, and did not back down in the face of the physical play. In fact, the officials whistled up the freshman for four fouls as she fought fire with fire. Yager represented the only player on the court who played every minute of the contest. She demonstrated great poise in helping the Lady Cougars to advance the ball against the press defense employed during the second half. She also stole 3 balls, handed out 1 assist, crashed the paint to wrest 4 rebounds (including 3 offensive!), and also had a trip to the foul line.
Maria Knezek played an absolutely determined contest. She led all players with a game high 13 steals, paced the squad with 7 points, recorded an assist, and grabbed one rebound. Without a doubt her quick hands and willingness to respond to the physical play with a little muscle tussle of her own prevented the hometown team from ever establishing on offensive rhythm, while her daring drives to the hoop provided one of the few offensive constants for the Lady Cougars.
Julia Baumohl may not have matched some of her more eye popping stat lines recorded earlier in the season, but her teammates needed her versatility in a desperate way this night. Filling the post role as a starter, Baumohl spent most of the evening shuttling between frontcourt positons. As the game entered crunch time, the team required “all hands on deck” for rebounding, and the need to up the defensive ante on the perimeter. To capitalize on both imperatives, Baumohl entered the game on the perimeter for the first time this season to close the game out. Baumohl tallied an assist and 3 rebounds on the night.
Brandy Michelle Finnell cemented her place on the all floor-burn team as she threw herself into the match with reckless abandon. Pushing back against the physical frontcourt, Finnell battered her way to a game high 14 rebounds, including 6 big offensive ‘bounds. She also knocked the ball away for 4 steals. On the scoring side of the ledger, Finnell hit the only TCS bucket of the first half, and scored 3 critical points, including the game winner in the furious fourth quarter.
Operating with an extraordinarily short bench, three players checked in over the course of the game to provide relief for the starters. Freshman Tracy Li recorded a rebound and boxed out the burly Lady Hawks frontcourt. Alex Nebel made forced the issue on offense, slashing her way to the hoop, and earning three separate trips to the foul line. Nebel also forced 2 steals, and snuck her way into the paint to claim 3 rebounds. Sixth man Emily Daugherty hauled down 7 big rebounds (including 3 from the offensive glass), stole 1 ball, and also earned two trips to the line, as she tricked overzealous defenders into fouling her.