CALIFORNIA – The words Avella and section champions usually don’t go together these days, but this year’s Eagles girls basketball team has proven to be the exception.
Avella’s team was able to wrap up the outright Section 3-A title Thursday night with a hard-fought 48-37 win on the road against California.
It wasn’t easy for the Eagles as they started very slow offensively and were playing without their top scorer, Olivia English, who missed the game after being injured in an automobile accident.
But like it has all season, Avella (9-1, 13-8) used its pressing defense to force turnovers and ultimately wear down its opponent.
“I’m so proud of these girls,” said Avella head coach Jim Matalik. “We had a lot going against us, in a tough place to play, and they fought until the end. We couldn’t make a shot early, but we stuck with our defense and it paid off.”
Both teams struggled to score early as neither squad made a shot from the field in the first six minutes of the game. The Eagles didn’t make their first field goal until almost four minutes had passed in the second quarter.
But Avella figured things out the latter part of the quarter and put together a 9-0 run to take a 16-14 lead at the half.
Despite only making five shots in the first half, Avella stayed in the game because they forced numerous turnovers and limited California (5-5, 14-7) to only four first-half baskets.
“We panicked,” California coach Chris Minerd said. “Their pressure wasn’t that great, but we threw the ball away all game and didn’t rebound the ball. We aren’t going to win many games when we take care of the ball like that. Give Avella credit. They do the little things you have to do to win – things we didn’t do.”
Avella started to pull away in the third quarter, pushing the lead to seven points after a 9-2 run that included seven consecutive points from Aleesha Thomas.
However, it was Mackenna Drazich who stepped up to carry the Eagles to victory, scoring 17 of her game-high points in the second half despite a defense specifically designed to stop her.
“They played a box-and-one on her and she was a bit frustrated early,” said Matalik. “But once she got going, she stepped up and had a fantastic game.”
California was led in scoring by Courtnee McMasters with 18. McMasters was coming off off a 56-point Wednesday against Mapletown but was held to only three field goals by Avella. She made 11 free throws.
Cal’s Tristen Conaway scored 12 points, including nine in the second half to help keep the Trojans within striking distance.
California pulled to within five at 39-34 with just under five minutes to play, but Drazich then took over as Avella outscored the Trojans 9-4 the rest of the way.
Avella is a battle-tested team, which helped down the stretch. Five of the Eagles’ eight losses have come against schools in larger classifications.
“It’s Avella,” commented Drazich about the section championship. “We don’t see many championships, so it is very special. We worked hard as a team all season for this moment, and this is something we won’t ever forget.”