Monday, January 31, 2011

Keene Girls End Merrimack's 5 Game Win Streak

It was the Carter vs. Clough show this evening in Merrimack. And while Merrimack's Rachael Carter might have outscored Keene's Ashley Clough 29 - 19, it was Clough and her Blackbird teammates who got the win. Keene went on a 21-6 1st half run, and they end Merrimack's 5 game winning streak with a 50-46 victory on Monday night.

Merrimack took control of the game early on, jumping out to a quick 12-3 lead. They were playing without their second best player, sophomore guard Kate Cole, who is out for the week with a knee injury. But led by the strong play of Carter, who scored the team's first 8 points and had 10 of her game-high 29 in the 1st quarter.

Keene then started to get back in the game. Clough led a 2-on-1 break, and found teammate Rachel McGahie underneath for an and-1 layup as the buzzer sounded to conclude the 1st quarter. The Blackbirds cut the Tomahawks lead to 14-11, and only kept the momentum rolling into the 2nd frame.

Clough hit a three-pointer and just like that the teams were knotted at 14-14 (Carter had 10 of her team's 14 while Clough had 8 of her team's 14 to that point). The two teams then exchanged leads for the next couple minutes. Merrimack went ahead, but then Keene senior Chloe Maleski hit a baseline jumper to tie it right back up at 16-16. Throughout their game both teams missed a number of easy shots inside, and had some silly turnovers. This could have been a much higher scoring game.

Maleski then grabbed an offensive converted the put-back, and Keene was up 18-16. Soon after that Clough made a nice pass to freshman Allison Yeaw for a layup. McGahie then made a nice running hook shot in the lane. The shot capped an 8-0 Blackbird run, as Keene had scored 21 of the game's last 27 points.

"We started to pass the ball better and worked as a team in the 2nd quarter" said Clough, a 5'10" guard/forward who is one of the top 5 ranked juniors in the state. "We also slowed the game down which helped."

It also helped that they were able to hold Carter to just 3 points in that 2nd quarter after she dropped 10 on them in the 1st. Merrimack only scored 5 points in the 2nd stanza, all coming on foul shots.

In the 3rd quarter Keene continued to increase their lead. Sophomore Ali Wilson scored who only points of the game on a key three-pointer. Junior forward Cailey White then started to make her presence felt on the boards. She converted a put-back for 2 points which gave the Blackbirds a 31-23 lead. White was very effective on the glass, grabbing a total of 11 rebounds on the game, to go with 5 points.

Merrimack head coach Amy Larkin-Perez called a timeout to try and stop the Keene run, but it didn't work. Right out of the timeout, Yeaw (11 points) drilled a long two-pointer to make it 34-23 (their largest lead of the game). White was doing a nice job on the boards, Clough was showing very good ball handling and passing ability, especially for a girl her size, and Keene was getting contributions from a wide variety of players.

"We're young, but I think we can be a top 8 team in Division I" said Keene head coach Eric Matte, whose brother Keith coaches the Lebanon boys basketball team. "I like the pieces we have, we're learning to play as a team right now."

These two teams were too even talent-wise for Merrimack to not make a run though, especially on their come floor. Carter took control of the game, putting on a show in the 4th quarter. She was hitting shots, making strong drives to the basket, grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers. In addition to her 29 points, the 5'9" senior guard also had 9 rebounds and 3 steals. Keene senior forward Kayla Sarette did however make a nice block on Carter while coming over from the weak side to prevent an easy layup. The Blackbirds weren't going to give the lead away without a fight.

Both teams were really playing hard down the stretch. Merrimack senior forward Danielle Donahue got an inside shot to go, and the Tomahawks were right back in the game, only trailing 41-37 with 2:55 left in the game. Carter then made a nice drive and and-1 finish to cut the Keene lead to 42-39 with 1:47 left.

"Our game plan going in was to slow down Carter's dribble penetration. I told the whole team that if anyone took a charge on her I would buy them a steak dinner" said Coach Matte. "Well, I guess we have a team of vegetarians."

The game had a fast and furious end. Carter, Yeaw and Merrimack guard Athena Rondeau all had drives and finishes, and all three of their shots came in the span of about 20 seconds. The result was a 46-43 lead for Keene. Maleski then sank 1 of 2 free throws, and the Blackbirds were clinging to a 47-43 lead late.

It wasn't over yet, though. Carter buried a three from the corner, and just like that it was a 1 point game, 47-46 with 31 seconds left. Also working in Merrimack's favor was that Clough suffered an injury right then and had to head to the bench. The Tomahawks were unable to take advantage, as the Carter three would be their last points of the game.

Clough would return to the game (albeit with a limp), and then Keene sealed the game by breaking the Merrimack press. Clough caught the inbounds pass in the back court and was immediately trapped. She finally found a teammate near mid-court, who then passed the ball ahead to Yeaw, who caught the ball in stride and laid in a wide open layup.

"I injured my wrist and my hip, on separate plays" said Clough, who had her AAU coach Dennis Reed by her side after the game stretching out her back to help her out.

Clough also hit a number of clutch free throws down the stretch to help the Blackbirds preserve the victory, which improves their record to 3-8 on the season. Clough scored 10 of her team-high 19 points from the charity stripe.

It was a tough loss for Merrimack, who came in to this game on a 5 game win streak and an overall record of 6-3. Not having Cole in there definitely hurt their chances, though.

"We played our hearts out" said Carter, who is undecided where she will be playing her college basketball next season (although she hopes to study nursing in college). "I'm disappointed that we lost, but all of played hard out their and did our best."

The Bottom Line
Keene made it all the way to the Class L semi-finals last year, so this is definitely a down year for them. They have had a very tough schedule so far, though. And they are a young team, with Clough being their only player with varsity experience prior to this season.

As for Merrimack, if they can get Cole back in the lineup and get back to playing the way they were during their 5 game win streak they could possibly make a run at a top 8 seed and a home playoff game in the tournament. They still have games remaining vs. Nashua South, Dover and Nashua North, though. Those are all teams they would likely be fighting for such a position in the playoffs. They'll likely have to win at least 2 of those 3 games to do it, because the Tomahawks still have to play the Division's 4 best teams - Winnacunnet, Londonderry, Manchester Memorial and Pinkerton.

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