By: Jeremy Leveille
This was touted as a potential Final Four preview match up in D-I girls basketball, with Bedford making the short drive to Manchester Memorial on Tuesday night. The Bulldogs were 10-1 coming in, while Memorial was 7-1. The teams met in the semi-finals of the Queen City Girls Holiday Tournament, with Bedford winning a hard fought battle by 7 or 8.
"They pressed us the first game and we didn't have much of a problem with it" said Manchester Memorial first-year head coach Lindsey Gundy.
Different story this time. Bedford wreaked havoc with their full court, in your face, pressure defense all game long. The Bulldogs forced over 20 turnovers. They stole the basketball 15 times, including 7 steals by junior point guard Brianna Purcell (who also dished out 7 assists). The result was a 47-32 win for Bedford, who improves to 11-1 on the season (14-1 including holiday tournament). The Bulldogs solidify their status as a legit D-I title contender along with Londonderry.
"That was the best defense we've played all year" said Bedford head coach Sue Thomas.
During the 1st half Bedford overplayed the wings defensively, and so Memorial tried to send cutters towards the paint and hit the cutters with passes from up top. But seemingly every time this happened those passes were being stolen or deflected, often times turning into baskets or free throws for the Bulldogs on the other end. In the 2nd half it was the Bedford press that was most effective, as they forced a number of turnovers in the back court.
"We didn't handle their pressure well" said Coach Gundy. "Once we started throwing the ball away we got in our own heads. We got frustrated with ourselves when we couldn't find the basket. It was clear we had a little bit of rust, this was our first game in 2 weeks.
Memorial only trailed 20-16 at halftime. Despite all of their turnovers the Crusaders were able to keep it close due to their toughness. Memorial is a tough, aggressive, physical, fearless team. They're led by senior forward Makenah Grisson and junior guard Abbey Morrison - both tough kids who play with a swagger that's going to intimidate a lot of teams.
Bedford took the early lead, as the opening tip went to Purcell and she darted in towards the bucket, scoring inside on a bigger player. Then Purcell pushed it hard up the floor, creating a 3-on-2 break and then dishing it to sophomore wing Maddie Blake for the bucket inside. Memorial was staying close, as senior wing Jessica Sweetser (a 4-year varsity contributor) banked in a leaner. 5-foot-11 junior face-up forward Courtney O'Connell hustled down the floor, crashing the offensive glass, going up strong with a put-back attempt but getting fouled and making 1 of 2 FTs.
Another Memorial turned into another quick bucket for Bedford transition bucket, as junior guard Nicole Tucci (team-high 16 points to go with 7 rebounds) buried a 15-footer to make it 7-2 Bulldogs and force the Crusaders to call an early timeout. The steals and deflections on defense continued for Bedford.
Memorial was hanging tough though, as Morrison responded with a slash to the rim for 2, showing good quickness off the dribble. Then the Crusaders forced a turnover which led to an 18-footer by Grisson to cut the Bulldogs' lead to 11-9 with 1:00 left in the 1st quarter. Bedford got another steal though, Tucci finished the layup on the other end and it was 13-9 BHS after 1 quarter.
6-foot sophomore forward Jenoyce Laniyan (who started for Memorial as a freshman but moved to Bedford right before the season started) converted a layup off a good extra pass by O'Connell to start the 2nd quarter. Then came two more quick steals by the Bulldogs, resulting in a 15-footer by Tucci and a put-back opportunity by Laniyan. She got fouled, making 1 of 2 FTs. Both fast breaks were started by Purcell. That capped a 7-0 run for Bedford, who now led 18-9.
Led by the Grisson and Morrison duo the Crusaders were hanging right in there. Grisson (team-high 16 points) made a tough slash to the rim and finish in traffic. Then Morrison stole the ball from Purcell in the back court and flipped it in for 2. Bedford countered, as O'Connell made a nice weak side block and then finished a layup off some good ball movement. It was 20-16 Bulldogs at halftime.
"They're a tough, physical team" said Coach Thomas. "I just told the girls to stay calm and not get caught up in that frenetic pace. That's their game."
It worked, as Bedford outscored Memorial 19-9 in the 3rd quarter. It started with an easy fast break layup by Blake, as Memorial wasn't able to get back on 'D'. Tucci hit an 18-footer and then Alexis Meservey connected on a 3 off the catch to make it 28-18 BHS.
Freshman Keltina Francis answered for Memorial with a strong baseline move and and-1 finish. But then Laniyan (9 points) converted back-to-back hoops - one inside bucket off the dribble and the other a 15-footer off the catch. Tucci connected on a 3 off the catch from the left wing.
"We moved the ball better in the 2nd half against their zone" said Coach Thomas. "Alexis Meservey came in off the bench and did great."
The Bedford pressure defense continued to give the Crusaders problems. Purcell hustled for a steal in the back court, got fouled at the rim and made 1 of 2 FTs. Just seconds later Purcell grabbed another steal near mid-court. After a pull-up jumper from 12 feet away by O'Connell, Tucci stole the ball near half court. She made 1 of 2 FTs and Bedford went up 39-23. Then the Bulldogs stole the ball yet again. Grisson closed the quarter by hitting a runer at the buzzer, and it was 39-25 BHS after 3.
"We played hard" said Coach Gundy. "We played well in spurts, but not long enough spurts."
Memorial turned the ball over 2 more times early in the 4th quarter. O'Connell (who jumped about 10 feet in the air earlier) continued to show her immense potential. She caught the ball from 18 feet away, faced up the rim, took a hard dribble towards the rim, pulled up on the drop of a dime and hit a 15-footer with a high release. Not many 5-foot-11 kids can make a play like that and make it look so easy.
Then the wheels started to come off for Memorial. Morrison (6 points, 3 steals) picked up a technical foul and sat the rest of the game. Soon Bedford had their largest lead, 43-25 and they started pulling starters out.
It's looking more and more like it will be Bedford vs. Londonderry in the title game for the second year in a row. Memorial is a strong team with a solid 6 player rotation. They're led by Grisson and Morrison, Sweetser is a good all-around player who has played in 2 Final Fours. Olivia Ross is a tough kid, good rebounder and defender. Haley Shea and Francis are only freshman but are capable of making plays as well. This is clearly a top 8 team and they have a shot at being a Final Four team.