Molly gains the lead, Belle hits clutch free-throws for Hurricanes' first title since 2005

Smith, Mensch Secure Suffolk ‘A’ Title For Westhampton




Belle Smith stood on the free-throw line late in the fourth quarter and thought about all the Suffolk County crowns she’d never claimed.

The three-sport standout has been in countless volleyball, basketball, and lacrosse county finals, but hadn’t won one. She’d even earned a gold medal in the 2019 World Lacrosse Women’s U19 World Championship last summer. But all that was about to change.

Senior guard Belle Smith shoots from the free-throw line. Independent/Christine Heeren

“I think at some point, we’re just tired of losing,” Smith said. “We’ve been here before, and we came ready to compete.”

The senior guard went 3-for-4 over seven seconds in the final minute, and scored nine of her game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter to lift top-seeded Westhampton Beach (21-2) to a 38-36 victory over No. 2 West Babylon at St. Joseph’s College February 25 for the team’w first Suffolk County Class A title since 2005.

“When she goes to the line she’s just clutch. She has ice in her veins,” head coach Katie Peters said. “Whenever Belle has the ball in her hands I feel confident. Being her coach for five years I trust her, I trust her input. I ask her all the time what defense she thinks is working for us. Even today, I told her this is a big gym, it’s going to be loud, and I need her to be the pilot out there, because no one is going to hear me.”

Westhampton scored just one point in the third, and back-to-back West Babylon (19-4) three-pointers that capped a 15-0 run helped the Eagles retake the lead, 28-22, by the end of the quarter.

“We wanted to pressure them out,” sophomore guard Olivia Rongo (five points) said. “We weren’t looking to make the steal, we just needed to defend the basket. Their defense was tough and we broke it down during the breaks and really worked it out by the end.”

Smith scored six points during an 8-0 Hurricanes run that flopped the score, and the two teams traded the advantage until an unusual suspect lit a spark. Sophomore guard Molly Mensch, coming off the bench for most of the second half to fill in for starters with multiple fouls, grabbed a Layla Mendoza rebound, and hit her layup for a 32-31 lead Westhampton wouldn’t relinquish.

Sophomore guard Molly Mensch moves around a block. Independent/Christine Heeren

“I was like, ‘ooh,’” Mensch said, smiling. “I was pretty confident Layla’s layup was going to go in, so I was about to run back, and I grabbed the rebound and at that point it’s just habit — I threw it up and I didn’t even know if a whistle was blown or anything. I was just hoping it’d go in.”

“Molly Mensch stepped up today, so much so,” Peters said. “It’s something we know she’s capable of.”

The coach said her team was able to pull away with the win because of all the tight situations her Hurricanes have been in.

“We have had so many games that have gone down to the wire like this,” Peters said. “It’s given us so much end-of-game experience. They understand clock management, our different options off the in-bounds plays late. We haven’t just practiced it, we’ve lived it.”

Rongo came up on the defensive side of things with a steal and fast-break score, and West Babylon missed two chances at the free-throw line with 49.2 seconds remaining to reclose the gap. A three-point shot was also off, and a foul at mid-court gave Westhampton the ball back.

When it came down to it, the sophomore agreed there’s no one else she’d rather see than Smith at the charity stripe.

Sophomore guard Olivia Rongo scores a field goal. Independent/Christine Heeren

“I feel secure, safe when she’s shooting,” Rongo said. “We had trouble today, so to know she was the one getting to the line on fouls was a relief.”

Westhampton topped Class C’s Pierson in the small school championship February 29, 49-34, but Smith, who is four points away  from breaking Bronson Martin’s (1708) all-time scoring record,  said her Hurricanes are just getting started. Her team squares off against Class AA’s Northport for the overall county crown. Westhampton is also headed to the Long Island championship March 15 at St. Joseph’s College at a time to be decided.

“This was our goal,” Smith said. “We weren’t going to leave without a win, but we’re also not done yet.”

desiree@indyeastend.com

Layla Mendoza, Katie Peters, and Belle Smith celebrate the Suffolk County championship win. Independent/Christine Heeren