GA junior forward Alexa Naessens (left) makes a determined drive toward the basket against Notre Dame freshman Riley Shaak. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last Friday the girls of Germantown Academy took the penultimate step toward clinching a share of the 2017 Inter-Ac basketball championship, knocking off the visiting Irish of the Academy of Notre Dame, 54-27.

Through much of the contest, the Patriots moved steadily ahead in small increments, leading 12-7 after the first quarter and then adding three points to their lead in the second quarter and three more in the third.

Pushing the pace in the fourth quarter and keeping the Notre Dame offense entirely off-balance, GA limited the visitors to just three points while putting up 19 of its own.

This contest completed Notre Dame’s league schedule, producing a final Inter-Ac record of 7-5 for the Irish (13-11 overall), while GA still had a February 14 meeting with Penn Charter on its agenda.

In another contest last Friday, Episcopal Academy trounced Agnes Irwin to finish the 12-game Inter-Ac schedule with an 11-1 record. Germantown Academy (18-9 overall), which split its home/away series with EA this season, can equal that 11-1 mark with a victory at Penn Charter, and thus share the 2017 title with the Churchwomen of Episcopal.

GA’s 6’1″ junior forward, Alexa Naessens, hadn’t participated in the game the Patriots lost at EA in December, sidelined after suffering a concussion. She put forth one of her most intense efforts since her return during the game last week against Notre Dame, coming away with 10 points and seven rebounds.

When the team’s only active senior, guard Abby Starzecky, got into a bit of foul trouble, Naessens became the emotional leader for a line-up that primarily featured sophomore guards Rachel Balzer and Shannon Topley along with a flock of freshmen.

One of those ninth graders, guard Jaye Haynes, had stepped into a starting role (joining her classmate, point guard Maddie Vizza) after senior forward Lilly Bolen suffered a knee injury in the rematch with Episcopal on January 24. Last Friday she shared the team high of 10 points with Naessens, and also pulled down nine rebounds.

Vizza chalked up eight points and the Pats got seven apiece from Balzer and freshman Elle Stauffer. Rounding out the scoring for the victors were Starzecky, Topley, and freshman Maddie Burns, each with four points.

Notre Dame’s Casey Walsh, a guard headed for Connecticut College, put up a game-high 11 points in the losing cause, but no one else for the Irish scored more than five.

Before the game, GA honored its three seniors, but only one of them would be able to take the court. The day before Bolen went down, guard Jess Sheridan suffered an ankle injury during practice, leaving only Starzecky on active duty. She and Sheridan are both bound for Bucknell, while Bolen will play for Tufts University.

Once the game got underway, Vizza popped a “three” from the top of the key, but over the next few minutes the hosts only managed a lone free throw by Naessens as the first of Walsh’s three three-balls helped the visitors edge ahead 6-4 midway through the first period.

The rest of the quarter, it was the Irish who would be limited to one made foul shot. After Naessens drove in to level the scoreboard at 6-6, GA subbed in Burns, Stauffer, and Topley. Naessens began to dash around the court like a player seven or eight inches shorter. She stole the ball at midcourt and got it ahead to Vizza for a score, then she picked it off again and went to the hoop herself.

After sophomore Caitlyn Mullen deposited a free throw for Notre Dame, GA’s Stauffer corralled a loose-ball rebound and scored to make it 12-7. That’s how the period ended after Burns blocked a lay-up attempt by Mullen in the final seconds.

Irish senior Jill Kane had lit up Springside Chestnut Hill Academy for 17 points a few days earlier, but at GA she had to leave the court for a spell after picking up her second personal foul just a dozen seconds into the second round.

Haynes scored her only basket of the first half, then Balzer blocked an Irish attempt at the other end. When Naessens sandwiched two field goals around one by the visiting Mullen, the hosts were ahead 18-9 three minutes into the period.

Home fans who thought their ball club was going to break the game wide open at this stage were sobered by a 5-0 spurt by Notre Dame consisting of a baseline jumper by sophomore Emma Kichula, a drive down the lane by her classmate Mandy McGurk, and a free throw by freshman Allie Lynch.

Near the close of the period, Germantown recouped most of those points thanks to Burns, who scored off of a steal and then followed in a teammate’s shot for a 22-14 halftime tally.

While the Patriots weren’t running away with the game at this juncture, they were methodically reinforcing their lead while playing tenacious defense. They’d missed numerous lay-ups in the first half, but Irish fans had to worry about the number of chances GA had been able to create, as well as the fact that the Pats collected a number of offensive rebounds.

In the third quarter GA widened the gap by another three points, with the freshman and sophomore classes doing all the scoring. There were two field goals apiece for Haynes and Stauffer, a coast-to-coast romp by Topley, and a trey by Vizza.

The last time Notre Dame seemed on the verge of a viable rally came with a little under two minutes left in the third round. GA was up 33-18, then Walsh bagged back-to-back three-pointers from the left wing to make it a nine-point affair. However, in the nine-and-a-half minutes that remained in the contest, the Irish would only score three more points.

After Walsh’s triples, teammate McGurk picked up her second personal foul, and then Stauffer scored for GA off of a baseline save by Naessens. It was 35-24 for the start of the final round.

The Patriots now seemed to raise their game a few more notches. Balzer, the object of opposing defenses and scoreless up to this point, knocked down a “three” in the first minute and scored twice from the paint later on. Haynes and Topley also hit shots from the floor to extend the run that had started late in the third period to a 16-0 surge.

As the game had progressed, the Irish had found it increasingly difficult to operate on offense.

Both in transition and in their defensive set, the Patriots displayed a voracious appetite for the ball. They dove after it with abandon when it came loose and harried the Irish when it was in the visitors’ possession, poking, prodding, and several times reaching in to block Notre Dame shots when the shooter barely had the ball above her shoulder.

With 2:40 left to play, the visitors’ Walsh hit a lay-up to give her team its first points of the fourth frame while also capping off her own game-high scoring effort. Her team still trailed, 49-26, and another senior, GA’s Starzecky, soon stepped to the foul line and made both shots.

With under 90 seconds to go, Starzecky put in the game’s last field goal, scoring on a drive off an assist from sophomore Emily Morrissey. Once 6’1″ Notre Dame freshman Riley Shaak had traded single free throws with GA’s Stauffer, the scoreboard came to rest.

Symbolically, 11th-grader Naessens appeared to don the mantle of leadership for the Patriots going forward. After all, next year she will be a senior standard bearer for GA’s group of talented young players along with guard Cat Polisano, who’s had to sit out her junior season due to a knee injury.

For Notre Dame, Walsh was followed on the stat sheet by Mullen with five points and McGurk with four, and by five other players who contributed either one or two points toward the visitors’ total.

The setback dropped Notre Dame one game behind in the Inter-Ac loss column to Penn Charter, which on the same afternoon had received 22 points from senior guard Lexi Hnatkowsky in a 58-46 defeat of Springside Chestnut Hill. That meant a win over GA on February 14 would give the Quakers sole possession of third place in the league, while a victory by the Patriots would earn them a share of the championship, along with Episcopal.

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