Long Reach knew coming into its 3A East region semifinal matchup against visiting Reservoir that managing emotions and staying the course in the opening minutes was going to be paramount.
After all, Reservoir had raced out to double-digit leads in the first quarter of each of the teams’ two regular season meetings. So when the Gators did it again on Thursday evening, jumping out to a 14-3 advantage in the first five minutes, Lightning coach Kelli Cofield wasn’t the least bit rattled.
“It’s playoffs, it’s not supposed to be easy and we knew from the first two times we played them that they were going to come out ready. So it was just a matter of keeping calm and understanding that the game is not lost in the first quarter and it’s not won in the first quarter either,” Cofield said. “Once we saw the ball go in a few times, realized the errors we were making and what we needed to do to correct them, we were fine.”
Long Reach (17-4) gained its footing in the latter stages of the opening quarter and seized the momentum in the second, hitting six 3-pointers on the way to grabbing a lead just before intermission that the team never lost the rest of the way en route to a 65-52 victory.
The Lightning advance to face J.M. Bennett, a 53-34 winner over Chesapeake-AA in the region’s other semifinal, for the 3A East region title on Saturday at 5 p.m.
“I think once we see that everyone is on the same page, it’s just like we are one big force,” said senior Malaya Streeter, who scored all 10 of her points on the evening during the decisive second quarter. “We just have that trust in each other that you pass the ball and it’s like ‘I know that’s going in.’ It’s great to have that feeling and have that confidence in your teammates.”
Streeter ended up as one of four Long Reach players in double figures scoring, with Jaelyn Swann (18 points), Lyric Swann (16) and Jalyn Richardson (10) all taking turns hitting big shots over the final three periods. All four also knocked down at least one 3-pointer for a Lightning squad that drained a combined nine shots from beyond the arc as a team.
Reservoir (17-7) got huge efforts in the loss from Tiffany Hooker (23 points and 3 assists) and Emily Dorn (16 points, 14 rebounds and 3 assists), but after its initial surge that forced Long Reach into eight first-quarter turnovers the Gators simply were unable to maintain the same level of intensity on the defensive end the rest of the way.
“We definitely took some confidence from the first two times that we played, knowing we could play with them and the game plan coming in was very similar. I thought we made some great decisions in that first quarter,” Reservoir coach Deb Taylor said. “Unfortunately, we just struggled to maintain that same defensive intensity over the course of the game. We missed some box outs, lost our player a couple times, and suddenly the game changed.”
Reservoir was still ahead by 10 points, 19-9, two minutes into the second quarter following a 3-pointer by Kate Abunassar (7 points). But Jaelyn Swann answered with her first three of the game shortly after and Long Reach proceeded to close the half on a 23-9 run to take a 32-28 lead.
Then to open the third quarter, Jaelyn Swann and Richardson hit back-to-back threes and suddenly Long Reach had its first double-digit lead of the game. The rest of the way, Reservoir never got closer than six as the Lightning seemingly had an answer for every push the Gators made.
“Having a veteran backcourt and starting four seniors, they know how to play with a lead. They realize that we have a sixth man out there with the clock on our side,” Cofield said. “I thought we were very composed in the second half.”
Looking ahead, as the Lightning will be trying for the program’s second straight region title this weekend, Cofield is encouraging her girls to stay in the moment.
“I think the biggest thing for us is going out every game, having fun and enjoying being on the floor together because you never know when it’s going to be that last time,” she said. “I don’t like getting caught up in setting those big goals, like trying to return to Towson for example, because then you lose sight of what’s right there in front of you.”
On the other side, it was an emotional loss for a Gators’ team that saw its season ended by Long Reach in the region semifinals for a second straight year. But Taylor said that the legacy of this group of seniors, which have helped turn the program around the last four years, is defined by much more than this loss.
“Emily and Nat [Verna] are at the forefront, but all six seniors deserve credit. The culture here at Reservoir has changed,” she said. “We now expect to win and be successful and that is very much because of the work those seniors have put in. At some point we are going to get over this hump and, when we do, it will be a tribute to what this group did.”
Long Reach 65, Reservoir 52 (3A East Semifinals)
LR (17-4): J. Swann 18, L. Swann 16, Streeter 10, Richardson 10, Ford 6, Thompson 5.
Re (17-7): Hooker 23, Dorn 16, Abunassar 7, Turner 4, Bailey 2.
Half: 32-28 LR.
River Hill 45, Oakland Mills 40 (2A South Semifinals)
The Hawks moved one win away from the program’s first region title since 2013, beating Oakland Mills on the road for the second time this season.
Aniyha Smith (14 points), Kennedy Clark (11) and Emily Masker (10) all scored in double figures to lead the charge for River Hill.
On the other side, Jazmine Washington paced Oakland Mills with 15 points. The Scorpions’ leading scorer on the season — Marley Grenway — did not play.
River Hill will now host Calvert on Saturday at 3 p.m. for the 2A South region championship.
RH (17-7): Smith 14, Clark 11, Masker 10, Jackson 6, Devine 4.
OM (18-6): Washington 15, King 10, Scott-Pearson 7, Riggs 6, Eldridge 2.
Half: 19-16 RH.
Western 62, Howard 45 (4A North Semifinals)
The Lions fell behind 36-24 at the half and never fully recovered, suffering the team’s fourth loss of the season. Nyceara Pryor (18 points), Vashae Rideout (14) and Destiny Hawkins (13) led the way for the Doves.
Howard, which did lead 13-11 at the end of the first quarter, was led by Anii Harris (15 points), Marisa Sanchez-Henry (10 points) and Gabby Scott (4 points, 11 rebounds).
“We ran into far and away the most talented team we have played in a long time, maybe ever in my career at Howard. They are loaded at every position,” Howard coach Scott Robinson said. “I am really proud of this group of girls. We went into the season with only one returning starter, no seniors, and had to play girls in positions they had never played before. They worked hard and worked together. It was really a fun season.”
W: Pryor 18, Rideout 14, Hawkins 13, Johnson 6, Reynolds 4, Fisher 3, Burden 2, Gray 2.
Ho (19-4): Harris 15, Sanchez-Henry 10, Malagar 9, Russell 7, Scott 4.
Half: 36-24 W.
Reach Brent Kennedy at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports