by BRYAN EVERSON
Monday night appeared to be déjà vu for Utica, but not in a good way.
The Chieftains, who endured a loss against Stoney Creek in last year’s district final, again were knocked out of the playoffs in a 36-27 defeat in the district quarterfinal hosted at home Monday night.
“Every time we got it to a manageable number we had a minor breakdown,” Utica coach Tom McDonald said. “When you’re running around pressing that hard, you’re going to have breakdowns, and we had a couple breakdowns that cost us baskets and took away our momentum.”
No quarter of the game was tighter than the fourth, but the Cougars delivered in the clutch by making all seven of their free throws in the final eight minutes. Three of the four that delivered from the stripe were seniors, among them a pair of three-year varsity players.
“We practice free throws every single day in practice,” said Emily Solek, one of those experienced seniors for Stoney. “We probably shoot at least 20 a day, so repetition really prepares us for moments like this.”
After a basket by Utica’s Mone’ Knowles opened the scoring, Stoney used its usual defensive pressure to frenzy the opposition into turnovers, and bombed away with 3’s by Morgan Porter, Ally Voss and Emily Eckhout to stretch a 13-0 run into the early portion of the second quarter.
The Chieftains (9-12) would have to wait until 1:57 remained in the opening half before another basket came via an open 3-pointer by senior forward Lyndsey Lavelle, who had nine points and seven boards in last year’s district final defeat to Stoney.
“We had some shots early and got fouled early, and we missed free throws,” Utica coach Tom McDonald said. “The shots we got were pretty good shots, but we just couldn’t finish.”
“When you miss early, it sets the tone. We probably dug a little bit too deep of a hole.”
Free throws continued to hinder aspirations of a comeback, as the Chieftains were able to gain some ground after halftime, but missed the first 11 of their 15 overall attempts from the stripe in the meantime.
James said that a few breakdowns led to several 3-pointers by Utica in the third quarter that helped the hosts gain some much-needed momentum, but a timeout helped settle the Cougars down heading toward the finish line.
“We talk about going fast on defense and slow on offense, and sometimes we get caught up going fast on defense and just as fast on offense,” James said. “And we’re not that type of team, so we have to slow it down a little bit.”
An adjustment to a more aggressive zone defense caused some trouble for Stoney early in the fourth quarter, helping lead to a pair of baskets by Knowles, and Lavelle grabbed her own rebound off a missed free throw afterward to cut the Cougars’ lead from 12 points down to six. Still, the difference in free throws and Stoney’s ability to effectively break the press in the final minutes helped ensure the lead stayed safe.
“We extended the zone and tried to trap out of that, and then we also tried to play some man and trap out of that,” McDonald said. “Desperate times call for desperate measures. Especially in the second half, though, our effort was really good.”
Eight players got in the scoring column for Stoney, led by 10 points from Solek. Lavelle led Utica with seven, followed by Knowles and Cayley Ebeling with six.
Ebeling was responsible for all four of Utica’s makes from the free throw line, which all came in the final quarter.
“She has an aggressive mindset offensively,” McDonald said. “She took the ball to the basket a few times and has a nice future here.”
Eisenhower won a semifinal against Stoney Creek Wednesday night, advancing to take on Adams, who defeated Rochester, Friday night in a district final.