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Win, place and show

Sullivan West edges Liberty to earn a place in sectionals


LIBERTY, NY — In the topsy-turvy world of high school basketball, there are no givens. Teams can be dominant for years, while others struggle just to garner a win or two.

But as students graduate, get hurt or leave their teams, the entire picture can change.

Sullivan West graduated guard Jennifer Pitz and forward Sarah Lander. Now this year, they’ve lost Rachel Houghtaling and Vicky Argueta.

Still, the Lady Westies were only one win shy of reaching sectionals as they came into Liberty on February 11 with a record of 9-5 (3-3 (OCIAA). A 10th win or a fourth league win would put them back in the dance. Many Sullivan West fans see postseason play as a matter of course, but this year has perhaps been the most difficult in coach Ron Bernhardt’s illustrious tenure.

Liberty has struggled since going 18-3 in 2003. But with great senior leadership from four-year guard Angela Giacolone and three-year forward Ceara Williams, Liberty has rediscovered its fight. Coming in with six wins (four more than last year), the Lady Indians looked to get their first-ever win against the Lady Bulldogs and they nearly pulled it off.

In years past, Sullivan enjoyed blowout wins over Liberty. Last year, the margin of victory was 83-17 and 73-23.

In their first match up this year, Sullivan West won 46-36, far from a blowout.

Hoping to exploit Sullivan West’s guard issues, Liberty coach Tom LaGattuta deployed an aggressive man-to-man defense. The result was an early lead, fueled by three pointers from Giacolone and senior guard Lisandra Villalobos. With points from Victoria Baum, Denisha Williamson and Williams, Liberty led its rivals 13-8 at the end of the first quarter.

Sullivan West’s Katrina Graby scored half of her team’s eight points in the first period. By night’s end, Graby’s ability to take it to the rack, draw fouls and make free throws would be the difference in Sullivan West’s 47-38 win. Graby would hit 12 of 18 from the line. Sullivan West enjoyed a huge disparity from the stripe, shooting 35 free throws to Liberty’s 15, of which the Lady Indians made nine.

Liberty’s lead slipped away by the end of the second quarter as they were outscored 12-4. Sullivan West’s tightening defense forced eight turnovers, as compared to just one in the opening period. Sullivan West’s Kristen Drobysh gave her team a 19-17 lead just before halftime.

Liberty managed just four free throws in the period, while Sullivan West got four points from Lindsey Bauer, three free throws from Graby and a bucket each from Brianna Kline and Drobysh.

Lindsey Murphy hit her team’s only three early in the second half. Steals from Kline and Bauer led to a 31-24 at the end of the third quarter. Three pointers from Giacolone and Villalobos and a free throw from Williams comprised Liberty’s seven points in the period.

But this game was far from over.

The fourth quarter would see 21 Sullivan West free-throw attempts to Liberty’s seven. Even with that disparity, Liberty put Sullivan West dangerously close to suffering a huge upset.

The margin wavered until Giacolone’s third trey brought the score to 35-33 with 4:33 to go. The Liberty pep reverberated, as the home crowd smelled blood in the water.

Giacolone got a steal but lost it out of bounds. The Westies coughed it right back, but Murphy tied up Paige LaPolt for the arrow possession. Graby was fouled and hit one of two to make it 36-33.

Then, Liberty sophomore Angie Ramos found a niche in the left corner to cut the lead to one at 36-35.

Murphy traveled and Liberty was in a position to garner the lead, but Williams traveled and Ramos fouled Graby, who hit two.

Then Ramos did it again.

It was now 38-37 with 2:53 left. and it was either team’s game to win or lose.

Graby pushed the margin back to three with a bucket but missed a free throw. At the other end, Liberty missed a chance to make it a one-point game again, as Kristen Sarno couldn’t get an open put back to go down.

Ramos fouled Kline, who made one of two to make it 41-37. Then, Graby hit two from the stripe to widen the margin to six. Sullivan West was refusing to lose this game and much to Liberty’s dismay, their storied potential upset was vanishing at the Westies’ free-throw line.

Over the final 1:08, Sullivan West outscored Liberty 7-1 to make a noose-tight game look like an easy win in the box score. But both coaches knew it was anything but.

Sullivan West emerged the 47-38 winner, having made it to sectionals on both their overall and league record.

Tears streamed down the faces of the Liberty players, who had given their all but came up short.

“This was the toughest we’ve ever played them,” said LaGattuta. “We fought the whole way. I couldn’t be prouder of my girls, every single one of them, right down to the 13th girl who doesn’t see any playing time but comes to practice every day to help make her team better. That’s tremendous to me,” he said.

LaGattuta extolled the play of Ramos. “She’s only a sophomore and a little green, but she gives you a thousand percent.” No doubt she has learned that ethic from Williams and Giacolone. “Angela has played Sullivan West for four years and Ceara for three,” said LaGattuta, who noted that the former played 32 minutes in this game and the latter played 30.

“You’ve got to give Sullivan West their props. They’re a quality team and Ron always gets the best out of them.”

Bernhardt was pleased that his team didn’t lose composure. “They got it down to one a couple of times but we came down and scored. Graby had a lot of points from the free throw line and she earned them,” he said. Using a 3-2 zone and dropping off the top of it to front Williams was an effective strategy, as Sullivan West limited Section Nine’s third-leading scorer to only one basket and a total of eight points. She has been averaging 18.71 points per game.

Making the sectionals again, especially under this year’s circumstances, was noteworthy. “It’s never a given,” Bern- hardt said.

Graby led all scorers with 16 points. Murphy had nine and Kline had eight for Sullivan West. Giacolone led Liberty with 11 points.

Liberty has a remote chance of still making sectionals as it has games remaining against Class A Monticello and Class B Onteora. They defeated The Family School and have one more game against Burke.

Sectionals or not, LaGattuta and his girls turned the corner this season and it was great to watch.

Sullivan West lost to Middletown on February 13. This week it beat the The Family School, and will take on O’Neill.

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TRR photo by Richard A. Ross
Sullivan West’s Katrina Graby, right, goes up and is about to be fouled by Liberty’s Ceara Williams. Graby led all scorers with 16 points, 12 of which came from the free-throw line. (Click for larger version)