WEST HEMPSTEAD, NY - Before the Super Bowl on Sunday, Long Island had maybe it's biggest girls game of the year when NYCHoops.net #2 ranked Long Island Lutheran took on #5 ranked St. Mary's in front of a packed crowd at the Island Garden.
It was a highly anticipated matchup with players from both teams understanding that bragging rights were on the line, and even with Lauren "Boogie" Brozoski sitting out most of the 2nd half with foul trouble, the Crusaders got a balanced, team effort, to push past the Gaels, 56-45.
The marquee matchup on the Island, between the 2 best the area has to offer, was played at the Island Garden, a noted AAU venue during the summer, at the idea of St. Mary's coach Tom Flynn. Both Flynn and LuHi head man Rich Slater are veterans of the venue, having coached with the Long Island Lightning AAU program that the Island Garden houses, so when approached about playing this game there, Slater thought it was a fun idea.
"Of course I would rather have the game at LuHi, but we thought it would be good idea. Tom and I are close friends, and we thought it would be a fun place to play," Slater said.
Not only were 2 of the top girls teams meeting at the Island Garden, they were meeting on Super Bowl Sunday, before the big game, which resonated with Crusader forward Katie Lavelle.
"It was like a Super Bowl type game you could say with two of the best facing off," Lavelle said.
It certainly was, and both teams were coming off impressive wins at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Moore Catholic yesterday, with LuHi taking down Medgar Evers, and St. Mary's beating a very good New Jersey power in St. John Vianney, so expectations were certainly amped up for this one.
Maybe they were a bit too amped up though as both teams got off to inauspicious starts, with Lavelle being the only Crusaders player to score in the first 6 minutes of the quarter, while Jordan Agustus didn't give St. Mary's their first field goal until 3:30 into the game.
It was sluggish to start, but Mei-Lyn Bautista hit a three from the wing to give the Gaels an 11-10 lead after one, and Flynn felt at that point, even playing subpar, his team was in front, and it had to get better.
"In the first quarter we weren't playing well, but we were up 11-10, so we said ok let's go, but obviously the 2nd didn't go as we wanted," Flynn said.
In Flynn's eyes, turnovers, bad shots, and an overall lack of understanding the game plan seemed too big them down. Brozoski was able to attack in transition, while Lavelle and Taylor Byrne were dominating in the paint. LuHi ended up taking a 28-18 lead near the end of the half, when Bautista gave the Gaels a glimmer of hope, knocking down a 3 right before the halftime buzzer, to cut the Crusaders lead to 28-21 at the half.
While LuHi was on top, Slater said he wanted to see Erin Storck get more touches in the 2nd half. The sharpshooting guard he says always has the right to shoot, and getting her involved was going to be key
"We try to get her the ball, but sometimes she defers too much," Slater said. "I'm the coach, and she has the green light all the time, so we wanted to run stuff for her and get her more involved."
Getting Storck more into the game proved to be a big turning point in the game. Brozoski was put on the bench when she picked up her 4th foul early in the 3rd quarter, and Storck hit a major three off a nice feed from Nani Redford after the Gaels cut it to 5, as LuHi closed the quarter scoring the last 8 points to open up a 43-30 lead after three, which Redford said was huge going into the 4th.
"It was really significant, gave us a lot of momentum and hyped us up more," Redford said. "Erin she's been off a bit lately, but she really stepped up today and got those shots when we needed them there."
Flynn just saw the end of the 3rd as a missed opportunity for his Gaels though, and saw it as almost the beginning of the end for the game.
"We knew Boogie was out of the game so we started pressing a bit, and we got it down to 5 with her out, but we missed a three that could've cut it to 2, then we turnover and 5 became 12 or 13, and you could see their body language that it was over then," Flynn said of that situation to end the quarter.
St. Mary's did have their moments in the 4th though. After going scoreless as a tandem in the 3rd, Agustus and Bautista stepped up and became more aggressive, but LuHi used the clock to their advantage, and unlike the Gaels who struggled mightily from the FT line, the Crusaders were clutch late when they needed to be to close the game out strong and take the 56-45 win.
A very balanced effort for Long Island Lutheran was led by Brozoski's 12 points, while Storck and Lavelle each had 11, with Byrne chipping in with 10.
It was a nice win for the Crusaders, but the most impressive thing to the staff and the players, was the ability to step up with Brozoski playing just 5 minutes in the 2nd half, and according to Redford, who finished with 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, it showed that this team is definitely not just a 1 player show.
"When people think of us, and think of LuHi, they think Boogie, Boogie, Boogie, the rest of us though can play as well, so we all stepped up and did what we needed to do to when she had to sit with fouls to help pull it out," Redford said.
Bautista paced St. Mary's with a game high 19 points, while Agustus was largely held in check due to the fantastic defense of Lavelle, scoring just 11, and for Flynn, he was just left to shake his head after the game and wonder.
"We played decently yesterday against Vianney, but they come in today, and they want this game, they play AAU with a lot of those girls, and you figure they would go on the court and play well, but it's like what the heck just happened?" Flynn said.
It is a big win for LuHi and they can now truly stake the claim as tops on Long Island, and even though Slater said that doesn't mean much to him, to the Crusader girls like Lavelle, it's something special they can carry with them the rest of the way.
"It makes you feel good for sure, because now we showed everyone that we really are #1."