On paper, the Pierson’s Suffolk County small school championship game against Mt. Sinai may not have seemed set to thrill, but that’s exactly what the Whalers did.
The Class C champions closed to within three points against their Class A counterparts after a Chastin Giles three-pointer and Giles-to-Katie Kneeland bucket with 7:12 left in the game. But Gabby Sartori (32 points) and Brooke Cergol (14) were hard to overcome, as Mt. Sinai handed the Whalers their first loss in 19 games, 69-55.
“I told the girls I’m proud of them. It’s exactly what we wanted,” said head coach Kevin Barron. “We wanted to keep it competitive, because anything can happen. I thought we seemed a little off during warmups. I told them to avoid the sidelines and they were going straight for them in the beginning of the game. But entering the third quarter, I told them we had to find a way to come out fired up. And we turned it on.”
The Whalers were down 41-24 a little over a minute into the third quarter, and after an Aziza El layup off a feed from Kneeland and a Celia Barranco three-pointer were interspersed between a field goal and pair of free throws by Sartori, the Whalers went on a 12-0 tear to close to within five, 48-43. The scoring spurt was highlighted by a Kneeland jump-shot and three-point play, a long field goal and layup by Giles, and Barranco’s third three-pointer of the evening.
“It was very intense,” Barranco said of the second half. “We had to crash, get every rebound like it was our last. In the third quarter, by grabbing those rebounds, we got more shots in. It’s been a lot of practice to get to this point. It gets very tiring, but the work paid off. We played amazing against them.”
Her coach agreed.
“We always play up to the competition,” Barron said. “This was, by far, our best game out of the last three. I told the girls they’re going to see competition just like this upstate, if not tougher. That’s a strong team and they did an unbelievable job.”
Barranco (nine points) said her team came in expecting to lose by 30. But Kneeland’s 20 points, Giles’s 11, and El’s 10 told a very different story.
“Their coach seemed frazzled — he wasn’t expecting it to be a three-point game at any time, and we made it happen,” Barron said. “No one was expecting us to win this game. Fourth quarter, we just ran out of steam a little bit, and that’s what’s going to happen when the other team is a little bit better than you. The girls did the best they could.”
Giles picked up her fourth foul at the end of the scoring spurt, which led to a Sartori free throw and field goal to end the third with the Mustangs up 51-43. A Sartori shot from beyond the arc re-extended her team’s lead, 54-48, but Carly Browngardt intercepted a pass, and on that possession, Kneeland was fouled in three-point range and made all three free throws to pull Pierson within 3. But Cergol racked up 11 of Mt. Sinai’s final 15 points, and Sartori scored 17 of her 32 points in the second half as Mt. Sinai nailed down the win.
“Gabby Sartori, she’s just an unbelievable ball player, and we couldn’t find a way to stop her,” Barron said.
Pierson will play in the state regional playoff March 9 against the Section I/Section IX winner. Barron said he sees his team facing off against Section IX’s Millbrook, last year’s defending state champion. Millbrook returns its top two players and is ranked No. 1 by the New York State Sportswriters Association.
“We definitely played with Mt. Sinai, and we could have won this game, but we started off slow, and toward the end, we sort of gave up,” Barranco said. “Moving on we need to give every game our all.”