When there’s a fire lit under her, Grace Perello performs.
The junior guard got an earful from head coach Woody Kneeland after she lost Port Jefferson’s Evelyn Walker, who hit her fourth three-point shot of the game with 3:56 left to close Pierson’s lead to five points, and then, her switch flipped. Perello went coast-to-coast off a steal, hit a jumper, and scored a layup that fueled an 11-point Whalers scoring streak to help Pierson pull away with a 47-32 win for the Suffolk County Class B/C title at St. Joseph’s College February 25.
“I was aggressive, got all that anger out,” the sophomore said, laughing. “It helped me shoot those shots.”
Her Class C qualifying team had lost to Class B champion Port Jeff (15-7) twice in the regular season.
“I said, ‘That’s not happening again,’” Perello said. “We really analyzed their team. We studied a lot of film and put in a lot of work and organized statistics on each player. We knew we had to come out hard. We stuck to ‘em on defense. We worked on our efficiency. We just weren’t going to lose again.”
For Gylia Dryden, who had a double-double on a game-high 18 points — nine in each half — and 12 rebounds, it all started during preperation.
“Her practices have been amazing this week,” Kneeland said. “She has learned some much. She’s bought in and gone after it.”
The head coach sent his junior a text message the night before the game telling his talented forward to keep it up.
“I told her if she brought anything she did this week her game was going to be awesome,” Kneeland said. “She played amazing.”
Dryden scored the first three points on a putback and a free throw, and finished the first scoring seven for a 15-8 Pierson lead. Perello scored six of them on a pair of free throws, a field goal, and a feed from senior point guard Chastin Giles.
“We gave each girl a plan and they executed,” Kneeland said. “I wanted this for them, and I knew they had a chance.”
But Dryden said she wasn’t always confident with the ball, especially coming from being a standout on the Whalers volleyball team. She said it took a little longer than she’d hoped to switch gears.
“But as soon as I got here, the confidence hit me, and I kept that up,” Dryden said. “I got into a flow. I was ready to dominate.”
Pierson (13-7) was up 21-14 at halftime, thanks in part to Port Jeff missing multiple three-point opportunities. That didn’t last long. After a Whalers 11-point scoring streak started the third — that junior guard Sofia Mancino (nine points) opened and closed — two Walker trifectas sandwiched a Dryden layup to close out the quarter, and two more Walker three-pointers in the fourth bookended an Abigail Rolfe field goal and Mancino putback to bring the score to 35-30 late.
“This happened before,” Perello said of the late surge. “They did this the first game we played them, and I feel we’re such a different team this time. We kept our composure, we slowed the game down, but we never let up.”
“They’re all good shooters and very fundamentally sound,” Kneeland said of Port Jeff. “But we have very fast kids, so I was trying to take advantage of that situation.”
That’s when Perello (13 points) turned it on. After her six-point tare she found Dryden under the basket, and the junior followed it up with a three-point play for a 16-point cushion with 1:27 left on the clock.
“She was knocking down those shots,” Dryden said of Perello. “She kept her head in the game. She’s a great teammate to work with.”
Pierson will play Class A winner Westhampton Beach in the small school championship, Saturday, February 29, at 5 PM St. Joseph’s. Should they win, the Whalers will get a chance to play for the overall county crown, Thursday March 5 at Ward Melville High School at 5 PM, before turning their attention to the Long Island championship. They’ll face East Rockaway March 9 at Newfield High School at 4:30 PM.
Kneeland said if there’s one thing he learned this game it’s giving Perello an in-game wake-up call could prove useful.
“She never lost her mark — she was grabbing offensive rebounds, she scored. I might keep yelling at her,” the coach said, laughing, while pointing out Perello is his daughter Halle’s best friend. “Grace and I pull at each other like that a little all the time. She’s like another daughter. She’s a college athlete, and I’m trying to help her get to that place, so sometimes I give her a little nudge, and she responds. I could see in her face she was mad at me, but man did she come to play after that.”