Second-half rally quashes Blair's upset hopes
FEB. 25, NELSON H. KOBREN MEMORIAL GYMNASIUM—
By all accounts the Blair girls' varsity basketball team should have imploded. It was a season of bad breaks; with three projected starters lost before the season, bad play and a seven-game losing streak, most teams would have unraveled. But in what would be the final game of a turbulent season the Blazers showed up, freshman point guard and all.
In the end, the final buzzer didn't set off the victory celebration they had planned, but the Blazers took their final bow in style, giving a raucous home crowd something to cheer about, and nearly pulling off an improbable first-round playoff win. As the final seconds ticked away and a dejected team glanced in disbelief at the scoreboard, reality set in that their roller coaster ride had ended in the 55-47 loss to the Richard Montgomery Rockets. The moment could have been hardly mmore bittersweet.
The bitterness lay in the finality and frustration of the hard-fought contest. For the four senior starters, none of whom plan to play in college, it was their last competitive basketball game, and for the team it was a somewhat fitting end to a 7-17 campaign in which progress seemed to elude them at every turn. But there was sweetness for those left on the hardwood tonight; they survived. And for those who remained, the post-game tears seemed to indicate that watching the team fall apart only brought them closer together.
In the game's opening minutes it looked as though the Blazers might postpone disappointment, at least for tonight. Feeding off the largest and loudest crowd of the season Blair jumped to a quick 7-2 lead. Senior co-captain Cate Rassman jumpstarted the offense, scoring 10 points in the first quarter and 16 of the Blazers' first 18 points overall. However, Rassman's remarkable individual effort couldn't stand alone, and RM (12-11) used a late charge to even the score at 12 by the end of the first quarter.
The Rockets kept their momentum into the second period, starting the quarter on a 5-0 run that gave them a 17-12 advantage with 6:29 left. But as soon as RM seemed to gain control Rassman answered with a huge three-point shot that sparked a 9-1 run for the Blazers. Over the last four minutes of the half the teams went back and forth, with Blair maintaining a small advantage. With time winding down the Blazers put an exclamation mark on the half as freshman point guard Jenny Williams hit an off balance jumper as the buzzer went off, giving Blair a 26-22 lead at intermission.
At the break the Blazers looked like a confident and determined squad, unfazed by an opponent that had beaten them before and poised for an upset. The RM offense had not been able to find a rhythm against the stifling interior defense of Rassman and fellow senior forward Sara Pierce. Similarly, the Blair offense couldn't find much balance, but it didn't matter as Rassman lit up the Rockets for 17 of her game-high 26 points in the first half.
Most of the third period followed a similar pattern, with both teams searching for offense and neither taking a decisive advantage. RM chipped away at the Blair lead but couldn't find the spark they needed to take the lead, and with two minutes remaining in the quarter the Blazers still held a 32-30 advantage. Then, a game that had been defined by a slow, defensive tone was turned upside down. In the last two minutes of the third period the Rockets hit back-to-back-to-back three pointers to turn a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead, their largest of the contest to that point. The Rockets had been relatively quiet from outside until that point, and seemed more focused on establishing a post presence when suddenly their guards exploded. It was a shocking turn of events, one from which the Blazers would not fully recover.
RM kept up the pressure as the fourth quarter began. With just 6:54 left in the game, a fast break lay up put the Rockets up nine at 43-34. Head coach James Mogge called a timeout to reorganize a team that was frantically trying to save its season, and the Blazers responded. Over the next three minutes Blair staged an impressive 6-0 run, capped off by a jump shot by senior guard Janay Walker that brought the crowd to its feet. With 3:44 remaining the Blazers had slashed the advantage to three at 43-40 and Blair still had the prospect of a remarkable comeback in their sights. But just as the Rockets had done before, RM answered with deadly efficiency. On their next two possessions the Rockets knocked down two three-pointers to bump the margin back up to nine, muting the crowd and putting the Blazers second-round aspirations to rest.
Another three pointer by Rassman put Blair back within six with one minute remaining, but even the superstar didn't have enough fire power to lead her team back.
At the game's conclusion Mogge gave the Rockets their due for stifling the Blazers' upset hopes. "You have to give them a lot of credit," he said of RM, "They hit the big shots."
Mogge added that the zone defense Blair employed was built to stop the interior game and make RM's guards beat them. He said that in their last match-up with the Rockets he felt the Blazers were burned on the interior, and tonight he set out to stop their strength. The strategy achieved its goal, and in the first half RM looked lost offensively, but eventually their perimeter players picked up the slack. Mogge admitted that leaving space for RM's shooters constituted a potential danger. "Whenever you play a zone you take a risk," he said.
As for the season Mogge was more positive, saying that he felt the team really gelled over the last few weeks and that their confidence was at an all time high. "Nobody on this team thought we'd lose tonight. Nobody wanted it to end. I thought for sure we'd win," said Mogge.
Rassman agreed that the season, despite a poor record, was a good one. For Rassman the game marked the end of storied career in which she spent more than three years on the varsity squad and by her senior year was recognized as one of the county's top players. Rassman's emotions were wavering but her attitude remained positive. "I was really proud of that game. Leaving the court knowing that I had a good performance and that our team improved was more than satisfying," Rassman asserted. With regards to the end of her career Rassman was both insightful and blunt. "I didn't realize how quickly [the end of my career] would come."
For Rassman, Pierce, Walker and fellow seniors Jessica Dubose, Daniella Constantin and Kaliza Lee it was a game and a team to be proud of.
Avi Wolfman-Arent. Avi Wolfman-Arent has been called many things: super genius, mega hunk and an all around cool guy; but through the praise he has remained down-to-earth and humble. At a muscular five feet nine inches he may seem intimidating when striding down Blair Boulevard, but when … More »