If basketball outcomes were determined solely according to personnel — individual skills, athleticism, size and the like — Maine-Endwell’s girls might well be viewing their 2012-13 season in the rear-view mirror.
“That’s tough for a coach to admit,” Sonny Spera responded when the notion was bounced his way. Reluctantly, he added, “But yeah, I think the cards were stacked a bit in Wallkill’s favor.”
Thing is, a beauty of the game is that factors beyond talent figure into the mix — as the good doctor is well aware. “Want to” and belief, cohesiveness, execution and resolve have a way of leveling the court, even when the foe appears a cut above.
Such was the case when M-E knocked off Wallkill, 62-58, in Saturday’s quarterfinal round of Class A state playoffs, extending its postseason into this weekend’s final four at Hudson Valley Community College.
Make that first-time final four participation for Spera’s Lady Spartans, Section 4 champions for a fourth time in five years but mere observers come semifinals.
That trend seemed bound for continuation Saturday at Binghamton High, where a taller, faster and versatile squad from Orange County assumed leads of 11-2 and 14-5 against a group of Lady Spartans that looked uncommonly out of sorts.
The outlook was bleak, as in, yet another fine M-E season was to be cut short of the big stage in Troy. Instead …
“We know that if we get down to keep fighting. We’re always ready for a good fight,” said junior guard Tori Dean, every bit the willful fighter from floppy pony tail to white NIKE swooshes.
Back they scrapped, blanking Wallkill over the closing 31/2 minutes of the first quarter while scoring 10 straight — four field goals from point-blank range to go with a couple free throws. The young Lady Spartans, a lone senior among them, had warmed to the occasion and to the opponent in a jiffy.
From there — save for one third-quarter lapse — they played exquisite, customarily selfless and defensive-minded basketball. On one end, ball movement and player movement were crisp and effective. On the other, pressure was continual, just as the blueprint demanded.
Small successes along the way: A catchy little baseline-inbound exchange from Dean to Julie Yacovoni on the block for two … Brianna Ciganek’s catch-and-release mid-ranger from the wing … Carla Spera’s 3-pointer off Dean’s exit feed from the post … Freshman Dani Dean’s put-back for two — M-E’s fourth shot of the possession — and subsequent free throw.
One critical defensive gem was turned in by Yacovoni, who positioned herself to intercept an entry pass with under a minute remaining and the score a hand-wringing 55-55. That one set up a possession that Martine Bosch turned into the go-ahead points by coolly connecting from the right wing with 35 seconds to play.
And tack on another stop for Yacovoni — M-E’s scoring leader with 18 points — who made a steal after the Lady Spartans went up 59-55, assuring that semifinal bid.
“What helped us was, we had contributions from a lot of folks, people picked each other up, and we kind of had that feeling we were going to get it done,” Spera said. ” … I think our strength this year has been, if it’s not you, it’s me. Someone’s kind of picked up the slack at different times.”
He added, “Our motto is, ‘Seize the moment.’ You’re going to have a moment here, seize the moment, don’t let it slip away. Give everything you have and never look back on it. We’ve been close before … “
In 2010, M-E dropped a 45-42 quarterfinal to Lakeland though leading by 12 with 12 minutes remaining.
In 2011, the Lady Spartans fell by five to Peekskill in the quarters.
Saturday’s breakthrough victory set up a semifinal matchup with Long Island champion Harborfields (20-2) set for 1:30 p.m. Friday at Hudson Valley CC.
Given the composition of his team, and that every quarterfinal point scored was off the hand of an underclassman, it was suggested to Spera that this squad might be a season ahead of schedule, no?
“No, because they’re here,” he countered. “That’s the ‘Seize the Moment.’ Don’t say it’s next year, don’t say we’ve got a lot of juniors. Say, hey, this is our opportunity and let’s take advantage of it.”
This team’s stated goal — as should be the objective of any team in any sport — is to be better tomorrow than it is today.
Should the Lady Spartans manage something better this weekend in Troy than their Grade-A showing last Saturday at Binghamton High, no telling how this chapter concludes.