Montgomery girls eliminated from NCS basketball tournament

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Coming together for a stellar stretch and regrouping after a string of losses, the Montgomery girls were confident against Dublin. But it didn’t make much difference as the Vikings finished stronger than they started in Friday’s quarterfinal NCS Div. 2 basketball playoff loss.

Much as Montgomery rebounded late in the season to gain a pair of home playoff wins, the Vikings wouldn’t let the Gaels run away after surrendering a halftime lead. Dublin, though, had a hotter hand in the end and held on for the 53-42 win.

“We matched up well with them. If some of those shots fell we would have been right there,” said point guard and co-captain Sarah Fitzgerald. “We had a good season. This game didn’t define our season.”

Montgomery finished a game short of qualifying for the NorCal state playoffs largely because Dublin’s defense kept the Gaels in the game until the team’s offense found a higher gear and the top scorers warmed up.

“We’ve played a lot of games like that. We just wanted to hang in there,” said Dublin coach Mark Wainwright. “In the second half we shot way better than we have.”

A choppy first half had Montgomery ahead 19-16 despite not scoring on its first eight possessions. Fitzgerald hit a pair of 3-pointers and four other Vikings found the basket, but Montgomery felt the loss of scoring and rebounding leader Anandi Jimenez to a pair of early fouls.

While the Vikings ran their motion offense well, getting open looks at the basket, Dublin’s zone defense was effective. The Gaels pushed Montgomery’s shooters far enough outside to force difficult shots and created turnovers off passes closer to the basket.

On offense, Montgomery wanted to look for scoring opportunities sooner. Yet the Vikings appeared tentative following the early cold spell.

“We tried to get points in transition. But I think we could have gotten going harder in the first half,” Jimenez said.

Still, the Gaels were similarly ineffective on offense. Dublin likes to pound the ball inside, but too often Gaels players missed shots close in. Dublin also couldn’t convert often enough to take advantage of a decided edge at the free throw line.

That three-point halftime Montgomery lead quickly evaporated in the third quarter.

Game-leading scorer Cathrine Kruschke hit a midrange jump shot a minute into the second half to spark an 8-0 Dublin run. She also scored on a rebound follow to start a 6-0 run after a pair of Jimenez free throws. Kruschke finished with 20 points.

Enduring another stretch of missed chances, Montgomery stayed in the contest with their top points’ producer, Jimenez, finding her way onto the scoring sheet. Montgomery closed the quarter on a 5-0 run.

“Dublin, they’re very strong competitors. They played in a very tough league,” said Montgomery coach Steve Bell. “We kept up with them pretty good.”

Too much of Kruschke on the low post and quick, sharp shooting guard Shannon Irwin on the outside kept Montgomery from getting any closer. Irwin scored 8 of her 14 points in the final period, most on sideline jumpers between Vikings defenders.

“They’re smart, they’re tough and play most of the game,” Wainwright said.

Running a high-low offense far more smoothly than in the first half, Dublin found shooting lanes. The Gaels free throw shooting didn’t improve much, but they still forged a double digit lead.

Recognizing the Vikings ability to comeback, Dublin was confident but not comfortable late in the game.

“We have a lot of respect for Montgomery. They’re poised,” Wainwright said.

Sustaining momentum gained entering the fourth quarter, Montgomery scored as many as the Vikings had in the first half.

“Everyone stepped up. I’m proud of how the girls did,” Bell said.

The Vikings closed within eight on several occasions with Jimenez scoring 9 of her 13 on the night and Chantal Evett chipping in 5 of her 11 for the game.

“Sometimes we become too complacent. In the second half we had more confidence,” Fitzgerald said.

The loss was difficult for seniors accustomed to deep section playoff runs. Still, the Vikings veterans helped groom a new corps of leaders on what was a young team.

“We came together well as a team,” Jimenez said.

Hoping to coach one day, Fitzgerald added she enjoyed being a teacher at times. The Montgomery girls’ basketball cupboard is well stocked, she said.

“This year was a great growing year for the younger players,” she said.