Dateline – Alpharetta, Ga. In semi-final action, the Lady Cougars punched their ticket to their first ever championship game by defeating the defending champion Howard Hawks 27 – 18. What this historic game lacked in finesse and offensive artistry, it more than made up for in sheer drama and defensive intensity.
In the early going, iron willed defenses and playoff jitters conspired to blank each team on their first three possessions. Senior Natalie Yager finally broke the ice as she lined up for a short banker, assisted by backcourt mate Maria Knezek. Following a Brandy Michelle Finnell steal, the Lady Cougars worked the ball around, fed Finnell in the post, who promptly drew a foul as she muscled the ball to the rim. Both shots from the charity stripe drew rim, but failed to drop. After a bang, bang exchange of steals, Howard’s frosh phenomena Olivia DeHaan ended up with the ball with 4 minutes showing on the clock. In a most uncharacteristic defensive miscue, the defender rotated away, allowing DeHaan the motive and means to nail a three point dagger to get her team on the board, and a one point lead. TCS regained the lead in the waning seconds of the period as Yager returned the earlier favor, assisting Knezek on a score.
Howard drew the first blood in the second frame. After an errant three pointer, Cottage controlled the offensive rebound and re-set the offense, only to see DeHaan steal an interior pass, and take the rock on a coast to coast trip, again pushing her team to a one point advantage. Unwilling to let Howard gain any momentum, the Lady Cougars went back to work, and set up Finnell deep in the post, where overactive defenders promptly fouled her in the act of shooting. Finnell calmly canned both shots to give her squad a 6 -5 edge. Now activating a full court press, Cottage saw immediate dividends in the form of a Yager steal, but could not convert on either of their two offensive rebound attempts. Howard then burned a possession, allowing Junior Emily Daugherty to end up with the ball in the TCS offensive zone. Quickly sizing up the defense, Daugherty pushed the ball to a wide open Alex Nebel, who spotted up in three point territory. Nebel let her long range jumper fly, snapping the net to drive the team total to 9 points. A moment later, TCS inbounded from under their basket. Yager threaded a needle to Finnell, who powered home her field goal. Just when it appeared that the Lady Cougars could hit the accelerator and achieve some separation, Howard tightened up with a number of stops, while grinding out four consecutive points. With the first half winding down, Shakirah Wazeerud-Din entered the game. After rimming out a shot from inside the paint, Wazeerud-Din helped to close out a Howard post player, short circuiting a last second play to preserve her team’s 11-9 lead.
The third period offered yet another eight minutes of offensive draught as Howard only managed 2 points, while the Lady Cougars countered with 5. The first score of the half occurred at the 5:40 mark, when a streaking Knezek navigated through Howard defenders with a series of zigs and zags. Finding herself at the top of the three point arc with space to operate, Knezek took a page from Nebel’s playbook and let her missile fly, which splashed down nineteen feet, nine inches later for her first trifecta of the season. With over two minutes on the scoreboard, Yager caught a pass from Nebel and measured up a banker from the left side of the court to open a 7 point spread. Again DeHaan went to well, gutting out a steal and score to end the scoring for the third, closing the frame out with a 16 – 11 TCS advantage.
Compared the previous 24 minutes, the last quarter offered up a comparative offensive bonanza. The Lady Hawks struck first, burring a long jump shot. After a broken play, and offensive rebound, the ball ended up in the hands of Nebel, conveniently anchored in three point land. Her trifecta hit nothing but net. Howard then responded with four points of their own. After a flurry of steals, and defensive stops, Howard inbounded the ball from the sideline in their own backcourt. An alert Yager stole the ball out of the hands of the Howard guard and drove home a textbook perfect left handed layup. DeHann countered with a foul shot. As the time slipped to just below one minute, Knezek fired a pass to Daugherty in the post. Daugherty pivoted and banked home the shot that seemed to seal the deal. A Lady Hawks miss, and Lady Cougar rebound later, Finnell found herself the victim of a foul, and nailed both offerings from the line. Knezek then performed the role a matador, closing out the game, and three decades of anticipation by delivering the coup de gras in the form of a clean steal, and fastbreak finish with only 17 ticks left on the game clock. Howard converted on an offensive rebound to account for the 27 – 18 final as time expired.
Emily Daugherty came up big as the sixth man in the first playoff action of her high school career . In addition to her late fourth quarter bucket, Daugherty hit the boards for an even 4 offensive, and 4 defensive bounds, to go along with 1 assist and 1 steal.
Fellow centers Tracy Li and Shakirah Wazeerud-Din both gave key moments of post relief. Li fought her way to an important offensive rebound to keep a second quarter Cottage possession alive, while also getting back on defense to short circuit Howard’s fast break. Wazeerud-Din came up tantalizing close on her one field goal attempt, but helped to shut down the Lady Hawks final possession of the first half.
Sharpshooter extraordinaire Alex Nebel continued her late season offensive push with a pair of timely three point harpoons. Nebel also patrolled the boards, pulling down 5 (2 offensive), passed for an assist, rang up a season high 8 steals, and passed for an assist. She also came up with the sole TCS blocked shot of the contest.
Julia Baumohl found herself in an offensive funk all game long, but still willed herself to impact the outcome of the game. A steal and 4 boards (1 offensive) provided the tally marks on her stat line, but Baumohl helped to set the defensive tone by getting back on defense, attacking the outlet passer, and engaging in muscle – tussle in the post.
Natalie Yager also turned in a gem of a game in the biggest playoff game of her basketball career. Yager scored 6 points, swept up the glass for 6 boards (1 offensive), passed for an assist, and netted 3 steals. With the other guards, she worked tirelessly on the perimeter to deny Howard the opportunity to penetrate and to make the easy feeds into the post.
Maria Knezek backed up to her title as “The Thief of Roswell,” as she committed unadulterated larceny on an unimaginable scale, coming up with 19 steals over the course of the 32 minute game, establishing a brand new Cottage playoff record. Knezek also caught the shooting jitters, but still pumped in 5 points, dished out 2 assists, and pulled down 5 boards (2 offensive).
Brandy Michelle Finnell also stepped up with a performance for the ages. Finnell tied a TCS playoff record with 21 BIG rebounds (7 offensive). Ellie Rappoport last pulled the trick in a consolation game against MSA in the 2016 playoffs. In addition to bossing the boards, Finnell gained two steals, and led the way with a team high 8 points.
Your Lady Cougars take to the hardwoods for a final time Wednesday afternoon against the Lady Panthers of Atlanta Area School with championship hardware on the line.