FRESH MEADOWS, NY - After winning 15 straight PSAL Championships, Murry Bergtraum were knocked off by Francis Lewis in the semifinals last season, and Monday evening in Fresh Meadows provided the Lady Blazers their first chance at revenge. They were coming in on a 3 game losing streak, but motivated and focused on proving that they are still the cream of the crop in the PSAL, Bergtraum came storming back from an 11 point halftime deficit to claim a much needed 78-64 win.
Coming into this rematch of last season's PSAL semifinal matchup, Bergtraum was faltering. They were on a 3 game losing streak which was culminated on Saturday by a loss to Staten Island Academy, and it was a loss that left a terrible taste in the mouth of Lady Blazers center Alex Smith '15.
"We were unfocused and we were mad at how we performed," Smith explained. "We should never play like that or lose a game like that. Never, ever, ever, ever."
That was a sentiment echoed by star guard Ashanae McLaughlin '15 and head coach Nerva Jean-Pierre, who came out of those games and just wanted to instill the fact of who they are as a team and what they represent when they put on the Murry Bergtraum uniform.
"This is Bergtraum. New York City girl's basketball starts with Bergtraum and it ends with Bergtraum,' Jean-Pierre stated. "That's who we are, so let's be who we are."
Getting back to playing Bergtraum basketball was what he and the rest of the team wanted. Smith noted that numerous players came to school today early at 6am to get up shots and work on their games, focused on coming out strong today and getting the win and revenge on the team that took their title, Francis Lewis.
It didn't start out so well though for Bergtraum as the threes were falling early and often for the Lady Patriots as they connected on 5 treys in the opening quarter, with Chi La Bady '15 scoring 12 in the 1st to see Francis Lewis take a 25-16 lead after one.
McLaughlin connected on a three from the wing early in the 2nd quarter, and then after pressuring the ball in the backcourt, got a steal and then went in for a layup to make the deficit for Bergtraum just two at 27-25 with 6:12 to go in the half, but Robyn Francis '15 connected right after on a three, and after a 8-0 run the lead was up to double digits for the first time for Francis Lewis as they seemed to be taking over.
Smith ended up being a major bright spot for the Lady Blazers in the opening half as she was able to score on putbacks with ease, finishing around the rim each time she touched the ball against the undersized Lady Patriots defenders, but Francis Lewis was just scorching hot in the opening half from long range, and after Bady hit the Lady Patriots 8th three of the half just as the buzzer sounded, Francis Lewis was up 48-37 at the break.
As weird as it may sound, scoring 48 points and connecting on 8 threes didn't necessarily make Francis Lewis head coach Stephen Tsai happy. He understood that what was happening for his team offensively wasn't what he was looking for, and felt that they also let a lot of missed opportunities get past them.
"They planted Alex in the middle and kind of dared us to shoot, and for us, when we are making threes like that, it can be like fools gold," Tsai said. "They think they can keep shooting threes, but we need to be a smarter team and attack. If someone comes out and we kick it out for a three that's ok, but to just pass it around and shoot threes isn't smart basketball."
Tsai sensed that his team was still ripe for the picking, and he felt that if his team continued to take the threes that they would be falling into the trap that Bergtraum wanted.
Jean-Pierre though wasn't happy with the team's defense, or its intensity early on, and Smith said that during the coach's halftime talk, which included a lot of screaming, there was a flashback to last year's semifinal loss, and she, and the whole team knew, that they didn't want to lose to the Lady Patriots once again.
"We took a flashback to last year's semifinal," Smith said. "We saw them winning the game and we were like how are they winning? We looked at what we were doing and we were letting them shoot, that's what they are strong at, they don't want to come inside, so we told our guards to shut down the shooters, just shut them down."
To accomplish that Jean-Pierre changed defenses. He said he decided to go to a box and one, putting Julissa Rodriguez '17 on Francis Lewis star guard Sierra Green '16 noting that if they were going to lose, it wasn't going to be Green who did it to them.
"We were going to shadow her. Someone else was going to have to beat us," Jean-Pierre said about the halftime adjustment.
Green did had 12 at the half so it was a good decision as the combination of the pressure defense along with the focus on Green seemed to start to wear down Francis Lewis. The long range shots continued, but they weren't falling with the consistency that they were early on, and much as Tsai said, the ball movement and the attacking of the defense was not there.
An 11 point halftime lead was being chipped away by Bergtraum as Smith was able to score on putback after putback as she controlled the paint, and then with 2:11 left in the 3rd, McLaughlin brought the ball across midcourt and pulled up for a deep three that was nothing but net to give the Lady Blazers their first lead of the game at 57-56, and it was a shot the Seton Hall bound guard said she had no doubt she was taking, and no doubt it was going in.
"I knew it. I felt it in my veins. When I came up the court I had confidence and I pulled up and it went in. It felt very good," McLaughlin said about the big shot.
Bergtraum was on a roll as they ended up taking a 2 point lead after three, and with the positive energy coming from the Lady Blazers sideline, the defense continued to tighten up as they only allowed 1 FG in the entire 4th quarter, which came with just under 30 seconds to go, holding Francis Lewis for almost the whole quarter without a bucket which left Tsai extremely frustrated after the game.
"We put up shots and we don't get the offensive rebound, which in a sense is like a turnover because it just gets them running. We took bad shots and we played terrible defense and that won't win games," Tsai stated.
McLaughlin and Smith took over as the two seniors who experienced the pain of losing in last year's semifinals combined for 46 points in this one as they rallied back and eventually took control of the game late to finish with a convincing 78-64 win.
The senior duo really came alive when their team needed them most with McLaughlin scoring a game high 24 points, and Smith adding 22 to lead the team to a victory. Jean-Pierre said that coming into the game he and his team were feeling a big disrespected, and that, plus the fact that Francis Lewis was the team that cost them their season last year, was all the motivation they needed to come out with the win.
"They took the girls glory," Jean-Pierre said about Francis Lewis taking down Bergtraum last season. "If someone takes something from you, you want it back. I said to them this is the first leg, go beat them on their home court. It's a long way to go, and there is a lot of basketball left to play, but right now this is a huge win for us emotionally for sure."
The coach added that it gives his group there mojo back, and brings them the swagger that he feels Bergtraum has always had, back. He added that he views McLaughlin as the best point guard in the city, and Smith as the best big girl in the city, and that if they play as a team they way they did today, they could be unstoppable.
Bady paced Francis Lewis in the defeat with 23 points, while Francis and Green added 15 and 14 points respectively in the defeat. It's a tough loss, but it's a loss that Tsai says he believes could make his group even better going forward.
"I will take these losses if it makes us better, because for us we need wake up calls," Tsai admitted. "I thought against Immaculate Heart Academy, where they kind of demolished us, was a good wake up call, and I think this is a good wakeup call too, so hopefully we will grow from this and get better."
It's Bergtraum's day though as they once again look poised to be a force to be reckoned during this PSAL season. After losing 3 straight in the non-league, and after last year's disappointing semifinal loss, this win now has them back on the track they want to be on, which is pointed directly at one goal according to McLaughlin.
"Everyone doubted us and we wanted to remind people that we are still Bergtraum, and at the end of the day we are gonna be back. Our goal is to get our championship back and we are going to work hard and play hard every day to get back on top."