By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Central girls basketball team didn’t budge an inch against Bristol Eastern during their grudge match on Monday, Feb. 17.
But defense ruled the night for the Lancers and the visiting squad forced the Rams into numerous gaffes and miscues.
And in the end, Eastern rolled up its 13th straight win behind a 41-36 triumph that not only netted the Lancers a sweep of the season series against the Rams but led to the CCC South Championship as well from Central high school.
Central (13-6) started the game off strongly and canned five of its first nine field goals in the game and led 12-10 after just eight minutes of action.
But when Eastern’s defense started to kick in, the Rams hit only 8-of-22 shots and committed 30 turnovers over the final 24 minutes of the showdown.
“We play good defense,” said Eastern coach Tony Floyd. “I was very pleased about the defense that we played.”
Central (13-6) showed plenty of grit, determination and almost got its first “W” against Eastern in quite some time.
The five point final showed just how close the two teams were in comparison to the Lancers’ 53-36 blowout over the Rams three weeks previous.
“I told the kids in the locker room they had nothing to hang their heads about,” said Central coach Steve Gaudet. “We just played a really good team and battled to the end. And we didn’t play our best. We missed some shots early in the first half and turned the ball over way too many times.”
“However, it was a gutsy performance out of them down the stretch, kind of held (Eastern) for a while in the second half.”
Daijia Brooks was the defensive cog Floyd craved as she wrapped up 14 points, a game-high 21 rebounds, six blocks, and five steals in another big effort for the CCC South champs.
Brooks was doubled several times on the floor and was forced into some tough shots but her defense was always there while she set up her teammates off her rejections, steals and defensive rebounding.
“They did a good job trying to work on Daijia,” said Floyd of Central. “The ball wasn’t falling for her today but it just shows everybody as a team, they’ve really come a long way.”
Amanda Zdun kicked in 11 points, four rebounds and three assists while teammate Jamilla Shoultz zipped in four points, seven rebounds, two assists and nabbed six steals.
Cassie Aiken added two points, two rebounds, and four steals in the fray while the bench also provided a lift for the Lancers as well.
Gianna D’Amato wrangled up six points and three steals. Morgan Dauphinee netted four points and two steals in the winning effort.
“As a team, they all contributed and did a good job,” said Floyd. “They kept them under 40 and that’s our goal.”
Central’s Chandler Walker was impressive throughout and was nearly unstoppable in the post.
She tossed in a game best 17 points, added 13 rebounds, and blocked her share of shots – a half dozen, just like Brooks – for the Rams.
Lauren Vallee splashed in three three-pointers for nine points – hitting a huge three in the final period – while Erika Monsalve scored four points in the fray before fouling out.
Christina Bouvier, Allie Martel, Jenn Fannon, and Esharra Walton all played well for the home team.
The Rams made gains early, kicking the ball around the perimeter as Fannon and company dropped it inside to Walker for high percentage shooting attempts.
Off a lay-in by Bouvier and a turnaround from Walker, Central took a 9-2 edge with 4:45 to play in the first period.
“It was a great job…we got the ball into Walker, she made great post moves, did some good things,” said Gaudet. “She carried us in the beginning.”
But two straight hoops by Zdun and back-to-back buckets by Brooks propelled the Lancers on an 8-0 push and gave Eastern a 10-9 lead with 70 seconds left in the first frame.
Vallee ended the stanza with a blistering three-pointer as the Rams held a two-point lead after one tilt.
Walker opened the second period with another turnaround jumper and quickly, Central’s tally reached 14-10 with 7:09 remaining before the half.
But when Eastern’s pressure defense really hit home, it forced Central into 10 miscues in the stanza and allowed the Rams just two free throws before intermission.
“Defensively, we trapped them at the right time,” said Floyd. “I think we did a good job on the guards in the second quarter and even coming into the third quarter. We worked our offense a lot better. We got some really good shots out of their zone and the kids ran in some easy, easy shots.”
The Lancers took the lead for good in the game off a Dauphinee jumper as Eastern went in front, 15-14, with 5:47 left in the first half.
That’s when Central was unable to get the ball down low to Walker as the Rams attempted just four field goals in the second frame – making only one – and was limited to four points overall in the quarter.
“Eastern started doubling Walker, harassing her and the ball handlers a little bit more,” said Gaudet. “It made it a little bit more difficult to get the entry pass in to her.”
Later in the period, D’Amato hit a jumper, Shoultz hit a long two-pointer. Off one last hoop by Zdun, the Lancers lead reached 21-16 at the half.
Eastern came out of the locker room with a little zest as D’Amato connected on a base-line jumper, as did Aiken. Brooks flipped in a leaner – getting fouled in the process – as her free throw gave the Lancers a 28-16 cushion just 1:05 into things.
Central never yielded as Martel hit a big lay-up, Monsalve flipped one in and thanks to another basket in the paint from Walker, the deficit was chopped to 28-22 with 2:26 left to go in the third period.
Brooks ended the third with an offensive rebound and put-back, propelling the Lancers to a 30-22 lead with one quarter remaining.
“It’s tough to hold Brooks and Zdun, two good players, down,” said Gaudet. “We did a good job for a while.”
The Rams were pesky over the final eight minutes of action as Central quickly cut it to a one possession affair.
Martel found Walker for a driving lay-up and then made a connection with Vallee for her third three-pointer of the night as Eastern’s advantage was cut to 30-27 with 7:24 remaining.
“Give Central a lot of credit,” said Floyd. “They came out here and played hard today. They forced us into things that made us uncomfortable and we weren’t patient enough.”
The Lancers couldn’t shake the Rams, even when Monsalve was disqualified with five minutes to go in the game.
“Losing Erica hurt,” said Gaudet of Monsalve. “She had two bad fouls when she didn’t necessarily had to pick them up. That hurt losing her. And then the (Eastern defensive) press, without her, without (the injured) Ashley (Elder), they harassed us a little bit.”
A steal and lay up by D’Amato – coupled with a Zdun three-point blast – gave Eastern a modest 37-29 lead with 4:44 remaining.
Walker quickly drilled 3-of-4 foul shots to cut it to a five point deficit but a steal and hoop by Shoultz kept Eastern ahead at 39-32 with 3:10 showing on the clock.
But Central’s defense also responded and allowed Eastern just one additional hoop to end the game.
Walker hit two straight buckets and with 2:10 left, it was a one-possession game again at 39-36.
With just over 1:30 left and Eastern still in charge by three, Brooks made one of the plays of the game.
Fannon made a quick steal and Walker went in for an attempted lay-up.
Brooks denied the shot for the loudest block of the night with 1:27 left. Eventually, Dauphinee helped to force a jump-ball and gave Eastern possession of the ball.
“It was defense, pretty much” that kept the lead in Eastern’s favor said Zdun. “We just had to play good defense and watch our fouls.”
The Lancers worked the ball around off the Central turnover. Eventually found D’Amato for a high percentage hoop.
With 54 seconds left, D’Amato made it nearly academic as she threw in one last lay-up to give the Lancers a big 41-36 edge.
“Once we settled down and got patient, we were able to start and execute the things we were able to do,” said Floyd.
Both teams did not score again as the squads exchanged free throws misses. But in the end, the Lancers weren’t just five points better, they were crowned CCC South champs.
“They buckled down in the end,” said Floyd of his squad. “They came together at the end and really worked hard and that was the key thing. They buckled down and got some big steals.”
And when your team hangs with Bristol Eastern for the full 32 minutes and come up just a bit short, who could truly argue with those results?
“I couldn’t be prouder of the effort and the intensity Central brought tonight,” said Gaudet.
By MICHAEL LETENDRE