Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winnacunnet Girls Win Again, O'Neil Leads them Past Londonderry

With so much being made nowadays about how basketball is a year-round sport, and how to be a good player or to be a good team you have to play it year-round it is amazing how many star players NH has had in recent years who are actually better in sports besides basketball. Last year the best basketball player in the state was Pinkerton's Zach Mathieu, who is a pro baseball prospect who only played hoops from December - March. Mathieu's sidekick on that championship Astros team, Ben Proulx is now playing Division I football at Sacred Heart. The boys Class I Player of the Year last season was Jake Woodward of Lebanon High, who is also a pro baseball prospect.

It's the same story for this year's Winnacunnet girls basketball team. Starting point guard Kirsten O'Neil is a Divison I prospect in soccer, and preseason all-state player Samantha Corcoran is just as good if not better at volleyball. Neither player plans on playing basketball in college.

But on Friday night O'Neil was the best player in the gym, going off for 29 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals to lead the Warriors to yet another victory, as they defeated Londonderry 69-60.

Well Played Game
This was the most well played girls basketball game I have seen all year so far. Winnacunnet improves to 10-0 on the season. But Londonderry definitely gave the Warriors their toughest test of the young season. Up until Winnacunnet made a run late in the game this was a very close, hard fought, back and forth contest with neither team leading by more than 5 points throughout.

Both teams pressed the other full court the entire game, and as a result the game at many points came down to which team executed their press and their press break better. Both teams also went with shorter rotations than usual, with Londonderry only playing 7 girls and Winnacunnet rotating just 6 in and out. There was a lot of intensity in the gym and it was a tournament atmosphere. I wouldn't be surprised to see these same 2 teams meet up in the Division title game in March.

Early on in this game Londonderry was hanging around, but they could have been winning instead, as they were having trouble finishing inside. Both teams were playing tough defense in the half court, but they were also moving the ball very well on offense, finding seams and getting decent looks. Londonderry was able to get inside looks, but for the most part they would either miss them or get fouled. One player who wasn't having this problem nearly as much was Lancers senior forward Daniele Crutcher. Crutcher had a big game, with 20 points and 8 rebounds, showing that she is fully recovered from the injury that sidelined her late last season. This was the best I've seen her play, as she was able to not only score at will inside, face-up to the basket and knock down the 18 foot jump shot. Savanna Butterfield also had a strong start, showing some nice athleticism as she twisted her body around towards the basket and all in one motion was able to catch the ball and shoot it. She also did a nice job of drawing a charge on the break on Winnacunnet guard Anna Sullivan, who made a strong drive to the basket on the play. Butterfield also made a nice pass from the high post down to to Crutcher, who finished inside plus the foul early on in the 2nd quarter.

For Winnacunnet the story was O'Neil, who dropped 10 of her game-high 29 points in the first quarter. She is a lightning quick point guard who is just as good defensively as she is on offense. She used her quickness to get to the rim and also get up ahead of the Londonderry defenders on the break. O'Neil also showed the ability to knock down the outside shot. It's hard to fathom that she not only didn't start for the varsity last year but she was barely getting minutes. Last year's Warriors team was just that good.

In the 2nd quarter Winnacunnet went on a little run and pushed their lead to 28-20. The run was in large part due to junior guard Aviana Morrison, who came off the bench and hit back-to-back threes. Morrison hit 3 threes on the game to finish with 11 points - that's pretty good production coming off the bench. Right after the Morrison threes, Winnacunnet got a steal and got the ball up ahead to O'Neil who laid it in on the break to make it 28-20 (their largest lead of the 1st half).

Londonderry however is too good of a team to not fight back. They went on an 8-3 run, as this time it was Crutcher who found Butterfield inside for an and-1 finish. The Lancers also picked up their defensive intensity, especially freshman guard Aliza Simpson and senior guard Jaymi Uphold, who are 2 of the better perimeter defenders in the state.

After a three-pointer right off the bat to begin the 3rd quarter the Winnacunnet lead was down to just 2, 35-33. On the ensuing Warriors possession O'Neil answered right back with a three ball of her own to put Winnacunnet back up by 5. Londonderry continued to battle back though, with both teams picking up their level of play in the 3rd quarter. There was some silly turnovers in the 1st half, but they were definitely fewer and farther between in the 2nd, despite the fact that the defensive intensity only increased as the game went on.

O'Neil again got out on the break and finished at the rim plus the foul. Crutcher meanwhile continued to play well on both ends of the floor for Londonderry. She banked in a jump shot off the glass and gave the Lancers their first lead since the opening minute of the game, 47-46. Once again, just when Londonderry started to get momentum on their side Winnacunnet answered right back. This time it was Morrison, who again knocked down a big three, and put the Warriors back in front 49-47. It was at this point you could really feel the intensity in the gym, and you could really get the feeling that these were 2 very good basketball teams who will likely go very deep in the tournament.

Crutcher then converted a lay-up, followed by 2 more inside baskets by Londonderry, to complete a 6-0 Lancers run. Coach Fagula's team took a 53-49 lead into the 4th quarter.

4th Quarter Belonged to "The Beattie Bunch"
So what happened in the 4th quarter, did Londonderry run out of gas or did Winnacunnet just want this game more? Well it was probably a little bit of both. Either way, the result was head coach Ed Beattie's Warriors coming out of the huddle to begin the 4th quarter hitting on all cylinders, as they went on a 18-3 run. That's right, folks, an 18-3 to start the 4th quarter for Winnacunnet. It was quite an impressive display. After trailing 53-49 heading into the 4th, Winnacunnet went on a run to take a 67-56 lead with just under a minute left (their largest lead of the game).

What it comes down to is if you want to beat Winnacunnet you need to prevent them from going on these kinds of big runs. Of course that is much easier said than done. In the Alvirne game the Broncos closed to within 12 in the 4th quarter before the Warriors went on a run and ended up winning by 25. Before Friday night the team that gave Winnacunnet their toughest game was Trinity, who actually led the game with 5 minutes left. So at times this season teams have been able to hang around with them, only to get run out of the gym in the 4th quarter. Coach Beattie's team just knows how to finish games - it's that simple.

O'Neil got the action started in the 4th, hitting a pair of three-pointers and in less than 2 minutes the Warriors went from being down 4 to up 3, as they now led 58-55. Winnacunnet also picked up their defensive intensity, forcing a 10 second violation by Londonderry. Corcoran then hit a jump shot from the elbow off some very good ball movement to make it 60-55. Londonderry wasn't giving up, though. Both teams just kept battling each other, as Uphold tied up O'Neil and both plays tumbled to the floor fighting for possession. he crowd continued to be a factor, and it was definitely a playoff atmosphere in Hampton.

Corcoran (12 points) then converted a shot inside to make it 63-55 Warriors. Uphold then got out on the break and had a wide open layup attempt. If she makes it then it's back to a 6 point game over 2 minutes left and Londonderry would still be in it. Instead she missed the shot, and on the other end Winnacunnet senior guard Kiel DiPetro (8 points) got a layup opportunity except she made the shot in. So instead of a 6 point deficit the Warrior's lead was now up to 19, 65-55 with under 2 minutes left. It was all but over.

Bottom Line
These were 2 very good teams, no question. With the way Winnacunnet played, especially in the 4th quarter, they only cemented their place as the #1 team in NH. They may have only played 6 girls in this game (O'Neil, Sullivan, Corcoran, Carly Gould, DiPetro and Morrison), but on Friday night the warriors showed that if you have 6 players who are good enough and play together that is all you need.

With Pinkerton beating Manchester Memorial on Friday night, and Londonderry beating Nashua North 61-29 we are now starting to see a separation between the 4 best teams in girls Division I (Winnacunnet, Londonderry, Pinkerton and Memorial) and the rest. Memorial beat Londonderry but lost to Pinkerton. Londonderry beat Pinkerton but lost to Memorial. And Pinkerton beat Memorial but lost to Londonderry. So it's safe to say that all 3 of those teams are about even, with Winnacunnet being a notch above them. The Warriors however, have only played 1 of those 4 teams. So we will have to wait and see how they do in their upcoming games against Memorial (February 8) and Pinkerton (February 11).

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