By Steven Zaitz
With three and a half minutes remaining in their game against Smithtown High School East, the Huntington varsity girls basketball team was on the precipice of not only losing their grip on a game they had once led by 17, but gone with it, would have been a chance at a spot in the playoffs.
When Smithtown East junior guard Meredith Brennan hit a corner jumper midway through the fourth quarter, it cut the Huntington lead to six. The Lady Devils, whose once-insurmountable lead now seemed very surmountable, needed a tourniquet.
After a timeout, the Bulls, whose defensive intensity in the second half of the game fueled their comeback, now had that defense dialed up to 11. The Blue Devils passed the ball around the perimeter but could not find an open shot. As the shot clock ticked down to just three seconds, the ball wound up in the hands of freshman point guard Ava McDonald, who was closely guarded by Brennan at the top of the key. After a quick dribble to her right and with no remaining recourse, she hoisted a jumper from behind the three-point arc. It was good – and just like that, Huntington had a nine-point lead with under three minutes to go. The 5’5” McDonald had delivered not only a tourniquet, but a dagger to the hearts of Smithtown East.
“I heard my coaches and the fans counting down the shot clock, so I knew I had to shoot it,” said McDonald, who led the Lady Devils in scoring with 13 points. “Our coaches put us through a lot of shooting drills at practice, so we are prepared for anything like this in game situations.”
Along with her baker’s dozen in points, McDonald had 8 assists, 4 steals, and played all 32 minutes of the game.
“Ava came through with a big shot just when we needed it,” Huntington head coach Michael Kaplan said. “I’m not surprised because she works hard every day in practice, and she is a great leader. She is calm and poised and has developed a great I.Q. of the game.”
It was with that high I.Q. that McDonald and her teammates were stifling the East offense in the early part of the game. Starters Kayleigh Bender, Reese Rinaldi, Lauren Donaghy and Jolie Weinschreider, along with McDonald, applied an unrelenting trap on the unnerved Bulls that led to numerous turnovers and easy layups for Huntington, as they built a 11-2 led after one quarter. The Lady Devs kept their sneakers firmly on the throat of the host Bulls throughout the first half, taking a 23-6 lead into the halftime locker-room.
With both teams coming with identical conference records of 4-6 and on the playoff bubble, Smithtown East must have finally received the memo at the break.
The Lady Bulls negotiated the Blue Devil press more deftly in the third quarter and Brennan, who had all of three points in the first two quarters, roared to life. She hit two driving layups early in the period, and a jumper at the buzzer to make the score 30-20. This would-be rout was now a competitive ball game with a full quarter still to go.
“We were moving the ball faster in the second half,” said the junior Brennan, who led all scorers with 17 points. “We stayed calmer and were able to break their trap more effectively. I really thought we were going to come back.”
But Brennan would miss another corner jumper, this time well-defended by Weinschreider, with about three minutes to go. It was half-way down, but rimmed out and would have again made it a six-point game. She would pour in 14 second half points, but none after McDonald’s heroics. The red-alert for the Blue Devils was over and they would escape with a 38-28 victory.
“We pride ourselves on our defense and we are normally in the top five in Suffolk County in that category every year,” said Kaplan. “After this win, we need to win three more to make the playoffs, but we’ll take them one game at a time.”
Both Huntington and Smithtown East have five league games left on their schedules. With matchups against the top two teams in the conference in West Babylon and Hills East, and two against the bottom two, Newfield and Deer Park, Huntington’s playoff berth might very well rest upon their game against West Islip.
The Lady Lions of West Islip are 6-5 and one game ahead of Huntington in Suffolk League III at the time of this writing. That game will be played on February 1st at West Islip. Smithtown East’s road to the postseason will be more arduous. They will need to win four out of their remaining five, and with Hills East and West Babylon, who have a combined record of 16-3, this will be a tall order.
The game between Smithtown High School East and Huntington High School was played on Jan. 26.