GREENFIELD — Oh, the third quarter; it’s just not the Ironladies’ thing.
The Jackson girls once again hung with their heavyweight hosts until halftime, but their lack of scoring punch proved their ultimate undoing, as McClain (9-5, 6-1 Frontier Athletic Conference) opened the third quarter with an 11-2 run on its way to a 44-31 victory Wednesday.
“We know that we’re never going to out-score people,” admitted coach Matt Walburn. “But, when we play hard and box out, we do pretty well. We only scored 12 points in the whole game the last time we played [McClain], so we knew when we went into the locker room down only 18-14, we were doing all right.”
In truth, the Ironladies (1-11, 1-6 FAC) could easily have been in front. Their 2-3 defense was playing lights-out, confusing the Tigers with an array of wrinkles. Sophomore Katelyn Webb was especially active, harassing McClain’s outside shooters so effectively that she often looked to be playing a box-and-one instead of a match-up zone.
By the late stages of quarter number two, the Tigers had all but abandoned the right side, where Webb was patrolling the elbow.
“That was our goal tonight, to protect the 3-point line,” Walburn said. “McClain doesn’t have a lot of size, but they have girls that can shoot. We try to make each game a series of little battles, and that was the one we wanted to win tonight, and we did. They didn’t hurt us from outside like they did the first time we played.”
Walburn was being modest. The Tigers never seemed to have an open look from outside, and they finished the game shooting a mere 1-of-18 from long distance.
Jackson, unfortunately, couldn’t parlay that into points on the other end, owing mostly to its 11 first-quarter turnovers. With Webb fighting a series of switches, double-teams and traps along the perimeter, the Ironladies began looking for Bronwyn Nelson and Taylor Evans inside. What they didn’t count on was the stellar weak-side help of junior Jaelyn Pitzer and freshman Payton Pryor.
Five times in the first frame alone, Pryor fronted Nelson in the post and, when the lob pass was launched, Pitzer raced over from the opposite block and swiped it out of the air. Most times, the Tigers were stymied on their counterattack, but Pitzer’s coast-to-coast lay-in and Pryor’s pair of free throws were notable exceptions.
“Just dumb passing,” said Walburn. “We were throwing to a spot without recognizing what the defense was doing, and that’s just repetition, things you pick up by playing. We preach to these girls all the time that better offense develops from April to November, by committing to the off-season. Post passing is a great example.”
Still, two of Nelson’s targets found their mark, Webb split the defense on a pair of dribble-drive buckets, and each added two free throws to make the deficit manageable at intermission.
That didn’t last long once the second half began, however. McClain unleashed the combination of juniors Kyla Burchett and Emma Stegbauer, and the duo proceeded to put the game away.
Burchett started the rally by collecting Pryor’s kick-out pass from the post and draining the team’s only triple from the top of the arc. After Pryor snatched another errant pass and raced down the court, Stegbauer joined her and finished with a textbook 2-on-1 lay-in. Stegbauer returned the favor a minute later, assisting on Pryor’s bank shot from the left elbow.
By the time Burchett’s steal and pull-up fast break jumper and Stegbauer’s 8-footer from the baseline were added to the book, the Tigers were firmly in control. Stegbauer delivered the backbreaker, in the form of a 19-footer courtesy of another high-post pass from Pryor, and Jackson never pulled to within single digits the rest of the way.
Burchett’s 13 points equaled Webb’s tally for game-high, but Pryor, Stegbauer and Brianna Weller all added at least eight. Pitzer’s seven steals and five assists, meanwhile, epitomized McClain’s well-balanced, all-for-one approach better than anything.
“[Burchett] is quick, tough, and she plays both ends of the floor,” Walburn said. “But, honestly, they have four or five girls who play that way. You can’t go into a game against them concentrating on just one player. That’s what makes them so good.
“The bottom line is, we played hard and competed, and there’s no doubt we played them better this time than we did the first time around. We were in the game, and we have nothing to hang our heads about.”