McMURRAY – For an eight-minute stretch Tuesday night, the Brentwood High School girls basketball team fell into a nightmare in which the ball seemed too big for the basket, the gymnasium lacked enough oxygen and McGuffey seemed to have eight players on the court.
It was an uncomfortable situation for a Brentwood, which had qualified for the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in a decade. McGuffey’s half-court zone trap defense overwhelmed the Spartans’ young backcourt. The Highlanders’ pressure forced Brentwood to stumble after the Spartans forged an early 10-7 lead.
Over the next eight minutes, McGuffey scored 24 consecutive points, forced nearly a dozen turnovers and simply wore down Brentwood. When the blitz was over, McGuffey had surged to a commanding 21-point lead early in the second quarter and the Highlanders cruised to an impressive 77-49 victory in the first round of the Class AA playoffs at Peters Township High School.
The win sends McGuffey (20-3), winner of 13 in a row, into the quarterfinals Friday night against undefeated Burrell (23-0), a 68-25 winner over Shenango. Burrell is the only undefeated girls team in the WPIAL.
“I could tell they were getting tired against the press,” McGuffey junior point guard Rachel Czulewicz said of Brentwood’s guards. “You can tell when the opponents are getting mad and frustrated with each other. That’s when we know we have to push the pace even more.”
McGuffey’s defense forced a whopping 35 Brentwood turnovers, many leading to easy transition baskets by the Highlanders. While defense implies protecting one’s end of the court, McGuffey sees it as being the beginning of its fast-breaking style of offense.
“Our main focus is defense,” said Czulewicz, who had 15 points and was one of three McGuffey players to score in double figures. “Our offense starts with defense.”
Added McGuffey coach Amanda Burchett, “Our kids probably get tired of hearing me say that defense generates our offense. I say it every day. We like to get the ball out and go, and to do that we have to play good defense.”
Defense is what jump-started McGuffey after a sluggish first four minutes, perhaps the lingering effect of having a weeklong layoff between the final game of the regular season and the playoffs. The Highlanders did use that time to scout Brentwood in its four-point win last weekend over Freedom in a preliminary round game.
“We were very well-prepared,” Burchett said. “The girls are very good at detecting what needs to be done and sticking to the game plan.”
That plan this time was to wear down Brentwood’s guards with constant defensive pressure and to get the ball to high-scoring junior forward Sammie Weiss on offense. If Weiss was covered, then she would dump the ball to Czulewicz or sophomore guard Katie Demi.
The plan worked to perfection as Weiss scored a game-high 34 points – six during the 24-0 run – despite being the focus of the Brentwood defense. Weiss also grabbed 17 rebounds.
When the Spartans paid too much attention to Weiss, Czulewicz and Demi were left for open long-range shots. Czulewicz scored nine points during the 24-0 run and Demi finished with 12 points in the game.
“We thought we were a lot faster and stronger than their guards,” Weiss said. “We knew it would cause problems if we pressured them.”
Only diamonds are under more pressure than what Brentwood’s backcourt was after the Spartans would advance the ball over the midcourt line. Brentwood committed 18 turnovers in the first half as McGuffey raced to a 39-25 lead.
The only thing that kept Brentwood within striking distance was the play of senior forward Laura McGowan, who scored 15 of her 19 in the first half. McGowan, however, was held to one field goal in the second half when McGuffey pulled away by outscoring the Spartans 23-11 in the third quarter. Weiss scored 11 points in the quarter.
“We had way too many turnovers,” Brentwood coach Rachel Thomas said. “We wanted to limit our turnovers and keep the ball out of Sammie’s hands. We did a good job of that for a while in the first half, then they made a couple of three-pointers in a row and we threw the ball away two or three times.”