Dateline – Atlanta, Ga. In the consolation game of the A.A.C. tournament, the 4th place Lady Mustangs of Mill Springs Academy faced off against 3rd seed Cottage School. The two long time rivals split their regular season games, with each team prevailing on their home court. “Both teams definitely want to take home the 3rd place hardware, and secure bragging rights for North Fulton Country,” Stated Coach Stephanie Soares. “The spectators can expect a tightly fought and physical game, a match which may well come down to the last possession.” The lucky few spectators in the Howard gymnasium would watch Coach Soares’ prophesy unfold with uncanny accuracy.
Shakirah Wazeerud-Din won the tip to jump start the action, but a turnover stymied the Cottage attack. After a couple of minutes of scoreless play, the Lady Cougars lit up the scoreboard on a powerful put-back of an errant shot by senior Ellie Rappoport. Moments later, sixth man sensation Kendra “Special K” Freedman, added to the team’s total by nailing a jumper to cap off a penetrate and dish move by teammate Natalie Yager. MSA’s All Star Jordan DeNardo retaliated with a jump shot of her own. Cottage closed off the scoring for the quarter on yet another Rappoport offensive rebound.
Clearly defense provided the dominant storyline for the first six minutes, but MSA found to force the issue on offense, ringing up 8 second quarter points to claim a 10 – 8 lead going into the half. Freedman netted the only Cottage points of the quarter when she drained a short jumper from just outside the lane, on an assist by Yager.
“A ‘professional’ tone characterized the ladies as we prepped for second half action.” Recalled Coach Cutchin. “We went over two specific adjustments on defense, and reiterated some offensive principles.” Both teams took to the court, steeling themselves for a frantic sixteen minutes of basketball action.
TCS’ defensive tweaks worked, as the Lady Mustangs only managed a single DeNardo bucket for the entire third period. Although the Mustangs answered the bell with renewed defensive intensity of their own, the Lady Cougars ground out 6 points, earned on a Tasha Neder leaner to cap off an inbounds play, and the game’s most explosive sequence, a 4 point outburst by Freedman. The action began on a breakaway as the sneaky sub outran her defender and gathered in a long pass. As Freedman laid the ball into the hoop, the defender received a whistle for a flagrant foul. Freedman then converted a technical foul shot, and a conventional foul shot. The third quarter ended with Cottage hanging onto a slim 14 – 12 lead. Apart from the tense atmosphere and the razor thin margin, a mounting foul situation cast a shadow over the Lady Cougars’ prospects. Neder and Rappoport both entered the final quarter sporting 4 fouls apiece.
During the final quarter of play, both teams both teams swung at each other like grizzled heavyweight boxers in a title match. TCS never relinquished the lead, but they never developed a cushion either. In fact, concerned spectators in the Cottage section made mental note of the defibulator devices located in the gym, as members of the TCS coaching staff manifested increasingly clear symptoms of dangerous cardiac conditions. With less than 4:00 minutes remaining in regulation time, Cottage made a stop and activated their offense. Neder found herself with a moment of daylight about 12 feet from the hoop, and let fly with a harpoon that splashed through the net to push the lead to 4. Seconds later, the officials whistled Neder for her fifth foul, disqualifying her from the game. Almost immediately, Rappoport heard the whistle that confined her to the bench as well. Now sporting a lineup that had not appeared on the court at any time during the season (Wazeerud-Din, Bri Worrell, Yager, Freedman and Sydney Culver), Cottage managed to make a number of stops, but MSA reversed fortune by forcing turnovers. DeNardo managed to convert a free throw during this sequence, and a field goal to trim the lead to one point. Off an inbound play, Freedman passed to a streaking Wazeerud-Din with accuracy reminiscent of New England’s Tom Brady. Wazeerud-Din gathered the pass and dribbled down the court, and drew an intentional foul to prevent the sure basket. With 10.3 seconds showing on the clock, Wazeerud-Din lined up for the two most consequential foul shots of the season. The center took her time, bent her knees, and swished both shots to build the lead back to three points. Not to be outdone, Jordan DeNardo took the game into her own hands, streaking down the court and weaving through defenders en route to her last basket of the game, leaving her team down one point with 5 ticks left in the game. MSA used a timeout to draw up a last defensive stand, while the Lady Cougars regrouped for the final push. Under intense pressure, Freedman used nearly all five seconds, before finding an open Sydney Culver. The pass cut through the defenders, Culver secured possession, and dribbled out the clock to end the epic match.
Bri Worrell became the first Middle School student to start in a playoff game where a trophy was a stake. She battled for 2 rebounds and effectively moved off the ball to get a couple of good shots off at the basket that unfortunately fell short. Worrell’s active feet and hands helped Cottage to maintain their defensive intensity even after the disqualification of Rappoport.
Super substitute Kendra Freedman led the team from scoring from off the bench. She tallied 10 points on an assortment of mid-range jump shots, foul shots and the “and one” fast-break finish. Freedman gathered 2 rebounds, went to the floor continually, tied up two loose balls and played harassing defense.
Sydney Culver and Analin Merchant provided the other reserves for the game. Culver’s ability to get open on the final play, and her presence of mind to protect the basketball allowed the team to escape the gym with their win. Basketball statisticians have not yet devised a statistic for this sort of thing, but spectators understood that her five second sequence may well have saved the season for her team.
Tasha Neder stepped up her game with a vocal session on the bus ride over, ensuring that all teammates approached this game on the same page, and carried the communication over into the game itself. Neder scored 4 points, with one basket in the third and the other emotional harpoon late in the fourth. Neder came up with 2 rebounds, and some down and dirty defense throughout the game. Midway into the fourth quarter Neder picked up DeNardo one-on-one, providing a new wrinkle for MSA to decipher, and forcing the visitor’s start to work even harder.
Natalie Yager dished 3 assists, forced 2 steals, twisted her way to 5 rebounds and largely assumed ball handling responsibilities, while also anchoring the perimeter on the zone. Yager also demonstrated her till now hidden musical ability by regaling her teammates with an inspired TCS version of “We Will Rock You,” as the bus bore down on the 17th Street Exit. Although not a scientifically valid observation, the coaching staff likes to believe that the musical interlude set the team up for the victory.
Ellie Rappoport played her customarily large role in her swan song as a Lady Cougar. Capping off her 6 year career, Rappoport scored 4 points, hauled down 8 rebounds (6 offensive), handed out an assist, stole 2 balls and blocked 3 shots. Her presence on defense contributed mightily to the outcome, as her vocal leadership helped to limit the intended impact of the baseline runs that MSA ran all game long.
Shakirah Wazeerud-Din saved her season’s best performance for last. Although she scored more points, or gathered more rebounds in other games, all aspects of her game came to the fore tonight. Simply put, Wazeerud-Din channeled Akeem Olajuwon, by pulling down 16 rebounds. Her 13 defensive boards effectively prevented MSA from getting the easy put backs that can make a big difference in a close game. She also forced a steal and blocked a driving lay-up, while also scoring 4 BIG fourth quarter points. In addition to the two foul shots mentioned in the game write up, the center followed an offensive rebound to ring up two other points as well.
After the game, the identities of the Lady Cougar representatives for the All Star Game were revealed. Ellie Rappoport, Shakirah Wazeerud-Din and Natalie Yager will participate in the traditional game and skills competition on Saturday 2/25/2017 at The Cougar Center.