Too tall. Too fast. Too many good shooters. That could be the lament coming from the Highland girls basketball team that was crunched by Westchester County’s elite Irvington team 56-34 in a State opening round game on Tuesday, March 7 at Beacon High School. Irvington, the State-ranked number one team in Class B just had too much fire-power for the Huskies to contend with.
A simple breakdown of the game goes thus: Irvington made their shots; Highland did not. The Huskies had plenty of open looks, but shot poorly (just 23% from the field) And Irvington had second, third and even fourth chances on seemingly every possession, unofficially out-rebounding Highland somewhere in the 3-to-1 range. And Irvington essentially took Highland all-star point guard Bri Rozzi out of the game, double-teaming her every time she touched the ball, and when she found the open shooter, they missed. Only on defense — Highland’s forte all season long (they are not a high-scoring team) — did the Huskies show they belonged on the floor with the perennial State finalists (five State titles since 2010), holding Irvington to 26 halftime points. The problem was that Highland — cold-as-ice from the floor — only scored 14.
(A little history: Highland and Irvington met in the same game last season and the Huskies, to the surprise of everyone, went off at halftime up 26-24, even led 31-30 in the third quarter when Rozzi — then a sophomore and relatively unknown outside of Section 9 — went to the bench with her third foul, and Irvington took advantage of Highland’s dilemma and went on a scoring tear, winning the game by 17 points).
Last year Highland got big baskets from the outside from Rozzi, Emily Peterson and Jayda Jackson to keep them in the game; this year those shots weren’t falling. Add to that Irvington’s knowledge of Rozzi, who matured this season into Section 9’s best player, and how she controls the game for the 21-1 Huskies…they prepared for her.
Highland scored on the opening tip on a Peterson breakaway, and tied it at 6-6 on successive baskets by Candace McCutcheon (the first off a Peterson steal, the second on an outlet pass from Sam Garcia). After a jumper from the line and a three-pointer from Irvington’s Olivia Valdis made it 11-6, Jackson nailed a three from the deep corner. But Valdis countered with another three and the quarter ended 14-9.
Valdis hit two more baskets to open the second quarter, before a Rozzi jumper from the line made it 18-11. Then it was Abbie Conklin and Kelly Degnan with back-to-back baskets, with Rozzi answering with a jumper from the key. It was 22-13. Degnan hit a layup, Rozzi one-of-two from the free throw line and Degnan another layup…and it was 26-14 at the half.
Highland came out for the second-half knowing that they had to start hitting from the outside — Irvington’s size underneath seemed to intimidate the Huskies from penetrating the lane — or it would be game-over in the third quarter. But a new face appeared on the Irvington score sheet, as Mary Bereton scored six straight points around a Garcia layup. It was 32-16. Rozzi responded with a jumper from the key to keep Highland in the game, but Irvington ran out the quarter 13-2 (the Highland score a McCutcheon breakaway) to put the game out of reach at 45-20.
Rozzi scored ten points to lead the Huskies, with McCutcheon and Garcia with eight points apiece; while Conklin led Irvington with 15, Valdiz and Bereton adding 14 apiece.
Highland ended its season 21-2, beating every Section 9 team including AA Newburgh, Middletown, Pine Bush, FDR and Valley Central, and arguably as the best team in all of Section 9 (all classes) — their only losses to Section 1 Briarcliff (who beat Irvington early in the season) and State number one Irvington.
“They were long and lanky, with some good shooters, and on the defensive end they got us out of our usual rhythm by not giving us room to shoot it. We had some open looks, but they challenged every shot we took,” said coach Jim Malak. And as for the season, “We exceeded expectations going 21-0 against all the Section 9 teams. They played with great confidence all year, nothing really phased them, they were always ready to play. We’re arguably the best team in Section 9 and one of the best in the State…it was a great year.”