Tomahawks finish 4th at Classic
It can often be difficult for a team to gear up for a consolation game.
The Nashua High School North girls basketball team, however, had something to prove. The Titans were dominated on their home floor by Milford in Saturday’s semifinal of the Nashua North Holiday Classic, and wouldn’t settle for another letdown Sunday against Merrimack.
North responded with an impressive showing from start to finish as the host team took third place in the tournament with a 60-34 win over the Tomahawks on Sunday.
“My girls are really an extension off of what the coach is,” Titans coach Ricky Oliver said. “They truly believe that if I’m fired up, I’m ready to go, then they know they have to be fired up and ready to go, and that’s what they did today.”
The trio of Taylor Choate, Adaeze Okorie and Sara Cordova combined for 41 of North’s 60 points to lead the Titans in a lopsided affair that was never in doubt. Cordova led all scorers with 16 points while Choate and Okorie added 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Oliver said the trio’s scoring ability and versatility as players makes them one of the best combinations in the state. Choate and Okorie are interchangeable at the guard sports and are strong attacking the rim, while Cordova is a sharpshooter who is good at creating space on the perimeter.
“They work very well together, and they’re very flexible in different situations,” Oliver said.
One of Oliver’s biggest concerns after Saturday’s loss was his team’s bad habit off getting off to slow starts, especially in this particular tournament.
The Titans got the start they were looking for Sunday. They responded to a Jolie Jacoby 3-pointer with a 9-0 run to go up 11-3, finishing the quarter with a 19-7 lead.
North’s 19 first-quarter points were more than its combined first-quarter total in the first two games of the tournament. Choate scored eight points in the quarter while Cordova added a 3-pointer and a fastbreak layup off a steal at midcourt.
“I told them that we have to change our identity,” Oliver said. “Right now we’re starting too slow, our warmup is too slow, we’re too lethargic and we’ve got to step up on our game.
“We’re a young team, we’re going to make mistakes. Why not, rather than dig ourselves a hole, we take the game and let the chips fall where they may.”
North picked up where it left off in the second, opening the quarter on an 11-0 run to extend its lead to 30-7. The Titans finished the first half with a 32-13 lead thanks to their crippling full-court pressure that created easy transition buckets off turnovers, including an Okorie reverse layup while drawing contact and a Cordova three-point play off a steal on the next possession.
The Tomahawks inability to score was clearly reflected in the stat sheet as they turned the ball over 11 times in the first half alone. Jacoby led Merrimack with nine points, while Abby Yuan added six for the game.
“North’s defense was super aggressive, and their pressure caused us to turn the ball over in the first half,” Tomahawks coach Courtney Cheetham said. “We can convert off the press but we weren’t getting any easy baskets off it. We’re not making it easy on ourselves.”
With her team trailing by 19 points at halftime, Cheetham used the last two quarters as a teaching opportunity, giving players unique assignments as a way to learn rather than calling timeouts and yelling at her team to bail it out of the press.
Cheetham said she assigned each player on the bench a teammate to watch on the court and give feedback to, a method she said she hopes will be beneficial in the long run.
North continued the onslaught in the second half, opening the third quarter on an 11-0 run to extend the advantage to 43-13. After Merrimack got itself back on the board, Danielle Upton answered with a 3 and Choate converted a fastbreak layup as the Titans took a commanding 50-21 lead into the fourth quarter.
Merrimack kept pushing, fighting, seemingly ready to break down that barrier that had been holding it back all game.
The Tomahawks cut the deficit to four points, then one, even tied it. But no matter how many punches they threw, Winnacunnet always had an answer. In the end, the Warriors advantage in talent and size simply became too much to overcome as Merrimack fell 49-34 in the semifinals of the Nashua North Holiday Classic – in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.
The Tomahawks fought valiantly after falling in an early 8-0 hole to start the game, and hung around throughout the first three quarters thanks largely in part to the play of Lauren Dubois, who scored all of her team-high 11 points in the first half.
They turned a 10-point second-quarter deficit into just six at halftime, then tied the game midway through the third quarter.
But in the fourth quarter, Merrimack succumbed, getting outscored 12-2 as the Warriors put the game out of reach early in the frame.
With her team leading 37-32 to start the fourth, Kelly Arsenault started the scoring with a turnaround jumper, and Molly Britton (11 points) made the last of her three 3-pointers with 5:12 to play as the Warriors lead swelled to 42-32.
“I think one thing we’re developing is that mental toughness,” Merrimack coach Courtney Cheetham said. “I think we have a group of kids that really work hard and we’re very deep, so it’s never going to be us running out of gas. We just couldn’t get over that hurdle.
“When you’re always fighting back, that’s a tough way to play. With 32 minutes of fighting back, it’s hard to get that mental toughness going.”
The Tomahawks will play in Sunday’s consolation game at 3 p.m.
Merrimack’s biggest disadvantage was its lack of size relative to Winnacunnet’s, particularly with the presence of 6-foot forward Margaret Knollmeyer. Knollmeyer finished with a game-high 16 points and gave the Tomahawks fits in the post.
Knollmeyer wasted little time asserting herself early on as the Warriors scored eight consecutive points in the first 90 seconds of the game. Merrimack simply had no answer to such a size advantage in the paint, and it showed as they got caught fouling in the paint and couldn’t finish in the lane on the other end.
“I think (size) is a factor every game we play,” Cheetham said. “We’re never going to make up inches this year, but we’re going to make up that physical difference.”
Dubois finally got Merrimack on the board with 3:12 left in the quarter with a pair of buckets, and the defense held the Warriors to just one point for the final six and a half minutes of the quarter.
Dubois continued to carry the Tomahawks in the second, scoring her team’s first nine points. The junior followed a Knollmeyer hoop to open the second with a 3 from the corner to cut the Winnacunnet lead to four, then finished a layup.
Merrimack trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, but four quick points off the bench from Grace Mulvey and an and-1 from Sydney Dubois cut the Tomahawks deficit to 26-20 at halftime.
Merrimack cut into Winnacunnet quickly in the third, opening the quarter with five consecutive points on a layup from Abby Yuan and a 3-pointer from Amanda D’Amico to make it 26-25.
The Tomahawks tied the game at 28-28 on a Sabrina Johnson basket off a feed from Dubois, but the Warriors responded with a Knollmeyer put-back and a 3 from Britton to regain control. Merrimack once again got the game to within a point, but once again folded and fell behind 37-32.
The inability to get over that final hurdle wore on the Tomahawks as they were frustrated by Winnacunnet the rest of the way.
“(Winnacunnet) has some really talented post players that we couldn’t contend with,” Cheetham said. “Credit to them for that part.”