Katie Kneeland was frustrated. Her Pierson girls basketball team had topped Smithtown Christian 51-41 January 9, and blown the team out of the water in a 64-34 home win February 2. But going into the locker room at halftime in the Suffolk County Class C/D finals at Centereach High School February 15, the Whalers were up just 22-18.
“We needed to play our game,” Kneeland said. “We were playing at around 70 percent and we needed to bring it up to 100.”
And the senior forward came out of halftime guns blazing, scoring 13 of her team-high 17 points in the second half to go along with 10 rebounds in the Whalers’ 55-31 win. Kneeland is now five points away from a career milestone of 1,000 points.
“I want her touching the ball as much as possible,” head coach Kevin Barron said. “She scored off some screens in the low post and off the fast break too, which was nice.”
The Whalers, who started up 6-2 off threes from Chastin Giles (11 points, six assists, six steals) and Celia Barranco (5 points), who converted her chance off her own steal, played a dominant first quarter. After a Smithtown Christian free throw, Pierson went on another tear, with Giles feeding Kneeland before she sank two shots from the foul line. Aziza El added a bucket, and Kneeland hit two more free throws for a 14-3 advantage. But things deteriorated for Pierson in the second quarter, as the Whalers let Abigail Loiacono score seven of her 10 first-half points, three coming off fouls. What hurt more was Giles sitting out from the 4:57 mark after picking up her third foul. At halftime, the Whalers already had 10 fouls.
“We needed to calm down,” said freshman point guard Sofia Mancino (six points). “We needed to move the ball around to find that chemistry we usually have. We wanted to make smart passes and decrease mistakes.”
Mancino was the clamp to the team’s “clamp-down” defense in the second half, guarding Loiacono and forcing her to make several turnovers in the paint.
“She’s a great athlete,” Barron said of Mancino. “She’s a great defender.”
But it was the team’s bench players who were the unsung heroes. From the moment Giles walked off the court to the time she stepped back on it with 4:46 left in the third, Phoebe Arkinson and Aziza El (10 points) worked with Kneeland to re-extend the lead.
“Every person on this team is a huge asset,” Mancino said. “Every person has an important role.”
Kneeland racked up nine points in the third, her last two on a rebound with 5.4 seconds on the clock for a 20-point lead heading into the fourth, 43-23.
The Whalers side-stepped and back-passed under the basket for easy, open layups.
“That’s our thing,” Kneeland said. “We also started doing more picks, which got a lot of other girls open. We were driving to the basket much harder.”
While Mancino said the team is on top of the world going 16-0 in League VI and moving on to face Mattituck with the hopes of beating the Tuckers a third time for the B/C/D title Wednesday, February 20, at Centereach at 4:30 PM, Kneeland is taking the win a little differently.
“We’re pumped up,” she said. “But this is definitely a wakeup call. We need to be more powerful.”