Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
SARDINIA — Apparently, cutting down basketball nets doesn’t get old. Because if it did, the Eastern Warriors would have quit doing so a long time ago.
Instead, they’ve got scissors on deck.
The Warriors (22-2) used a 21-point third quarter to pull away from Oak Hill on Friday before slamming the door shut on a 70-43 victory in a Division III sectional final — the program’s seventh consecutive sectional crown.
“It’s a tradition to [win sectional titles] here at Eastern. But I think we take it for granted sometimes how much time we put in to get to this point,” Pickerill said. “These seniors have had four long summers and four long winters together. We have four sectional titles for them. It’s something they’ll always look back on and hang their hat on. This is a step in the direction we want to go. We had fun, we’re playing hard and we’re playing as well as we have all year.”
Eastern’s two losses this season have come to SHAC opponents Peebles and North Adams, the last of which took place on Jan. 20. But since then, the Warriors have ripped off eight straight victories, including a 44-37 win over the Green Devils in the pair’s second meeting.
And they’re average margin of victory during that stretch? Just over 34 points.
“Finding the right mix, chemistry and rotation has been key,” Pickerill said. “I feel like our bench has been a lot better in the past three to four weeks. Whether it’s [Izzy] Barber, [Mary] Litzinger, or Mack [Gloff] and [Kirsten] Bailey, it doesn’t matter what they bring, whether it’s scoring or defensive pressure. I’ve got confidence in playing them in places that I probably wasn’t playing them earlier in the year. We want to keep the tempo up and they help us do that.”
Guard Rylee Leonard assisted that cause as well on Friday. The sophomore continually beat Oak Hill’s defense by getting to the rim, drawing fouls and knocking down contested shots.
She was best, however, in transition.
Her teammates found her and she provided the fireworks, finishing with a game-high 25 points alongside six rebounds, four assists and four steals.
“When you get Leonard in the open court, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of people who can play like that,” Pickerill said. “She gets better when she’s in the open court. A lot better. We want to get her the ball in those situations and we want people to run with her. [The other team] is tired and they can’t run. So that’s why we keep the bodies fresh.”
Early on, Oak Hill (12-9) had a hot hand from beyond the 3-point arc.
After Bailey Dotson and Leonard gave the Warriors a 4-0 lead, Oak Hill took a 6-4 edge thanks to a triple and a three-point play from Olivia Clarkson. The Warriors took a 9-6 lead, thanks to a 3 from Emma Prine, before Clarkson again dialed long distance to tie the game.
Then, with Eastern leading 13-9, Clarkson and Baylee Howell connected on back-to-back treys to put Oak Hill ahead 15-13 with 29.2 seconds left. But just as time expired in the first quarter, Leonard found Mary Litzinger for a deep ball, putting Eastern ahead 16-15 after one.
While the Warriors found a second gear, Pickerill noted that guarding the perimeter is something his girls will have to fine-tune.
“It’s something we have to look at,” Pickerill said of his team’s defensive play early. “Alexander is going to shoot a bunch next Wednesday and we know North Adams can shoot as well if we get to that point. So it’s something we’ll work on and focus on in practice. We’ll find out what happens Wednesday night.”
Howell gave the Oaks a 17-16 lead in the second before Barber put the Warriors ahead for good with back-to-back buckets. Leonard then scored to make it a 24-17 score before Prine connected from distance for a 29-22 tally. By halftime, that seven-point advantage held at 31-24.
In the third, the Warriors put the clamps down defensively and let Leonard do her thing.
After Emma Brown opened the quarter with a bucket, making it 33-24, Leonard scored eight of the team’s next 12 points to cap a 14-0 run while stretching the lead to 45-24. Gloff also helped out, pushing the lead to 50-26, before the Warriors took a 52-32 edge into the final quarter.
It was smooth sailing from there.
Gloff followed Leonard’s final stat line with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists while Prine added 11 points and three assists. Barber finished with eight points and Litzinger added six of her own to the totals.
Clarkson led Oak Hill with 20 points and six boards while Howell totaled 18 points. Chloe Chambers chipped in with nine points and 12 rebounds while Brooke Howard passed out seven assists.
While the Oaks’ season comes to an end, Eastern will now host a matchup with Alexander in a Division III district semifinal at 7 p.m., Wednesday.
Should they get a victory, the Warriors could then face North Adams for a third time this season in a district championship. But they won’t be looking ahead to that matchup by any means.
“It’s hard [not to look towards a possible rematch with North Adams]. These are 16-to-18-year-old kids,” Pickerill said. “But we’ll dial their focus in. These kids are smart. They’ve got good basketball IQs. So as long as we can maintain that focus, we’ll be fine. But we have to be ready to play. Alexander could come in and play with us and give us all kinds of fits. They’ve got a great one-two punch and a shooter off of that. But we’re ready for them. We’re excited.”
Oak Hill: 15-9-8-11 — 43
Eastern: 16-15-21-18 — 70
Oak Hill: 15-47 FG, 4-9 FT, 9-17 3pt., 28 rebounds (Chambers 12), 20 turnovers, 10 assists (Howard 7). Scoring: Clarkson 20, Howell 14, Chambers 9.
Eastern: 25-58 FG, 15-18 FT, 5-13 3pt., 28 rebounds (Gloff 7), 8 turnovers, 19 assists (Leonard 4, Gloff 4). Scoring: Leonard 25, Gloff 13, Prine 11, Barber 8, Litzinger 6, Bailey 3, Dotson 2, Brown 2.