The Battle of the Bubble rarely disappoints, and the early-season edition was no different, Starr’s Mill and McIntosh splitting their doubleheader on the Panthers’ home court Tuesday night.
The Lady Chiefs won the opener, 46-37, behind red-hot shooting in the first half, but the team still wasn’t pleased with their play as Starr’s Mill clawed back and made it close late.
“That’s about the only thing I was pleased with the whole game,” Coach David Dowse said of the first half shooting. “Thank goodness we did, or we wouldn’t have won the ballgame.”
Dowse felt his team left a lot of meat on the bone, citing a lack of defensive intensity and sloppy play on offense as two key aspects they will have to sharpen up.
“If you have a choice between playing well and losing and playing poorly and winning, I’ll take the latter, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Dowse.
Starr’s Mill would lead early and tie the game up at 8-8 on a Kelly Kozusko bucket, but McIntosh would take control for much of the game from there, keyed by long-range proficiency. DeLayne Rotolo, Samantha Coffey, and Savannah Soles each contributed a three-pointer as they held a slim 15-12 lead after one quarter.
The Chiefs would lose Coffey, a vital cog and a senior leader, to an injury, but they were able to keep pushing. In the second quarter, Soles hit twice from deep, and Rotolo ripped off five treys. Her six three-pointers staked her team to a commanding 36-17 halftime lead.
Starr’s Mill tried to dig out of their hole in the second half, adjusting their defense to keep Rotolo in check. Kozusko got the crowd into it at the outset with a monster block, and Emily Nieuwstraten hit from deep, but Rylee Calhoun responded with three for McIntosh to keep the lead steady. It ballooned over twenty points on a Maddie Emmet putback before the Panthers strung together a mini run keyed by Spencer Dawson. Dawson started it with a jumper, then dished to Makenna Tschetter for two. Only a basket from Sydney Hahn would break up the Panther party as Dawson sank a three to close the quarter on a 7-2 run to pull within 43-27.
Alyssa Angelo sparked the Panthers early in the fourth, repeatedly pilfering passes and getting to the hoop. They made the Chiefs work for it late, but ultimately they did not have enough time to catch up. Nieuwstraten’s three-pointer would be the final shot in the 46-37 final.
DeLayne Rotolo paced the Chiefs with 20 points, including 6 of 11 shooting on three-pointers. Rylee Calhoun posted 8 points and 5 steals.
Kelly Kozusko led the Panthers with 13 points, followed by Alyssa Angelo with 10 and Spencer Dawson with 7.
Starr’s Mill held serve most of the night in the boys game, ending a frustrating run against McIntosh as the Chiefs last year competed their best run in school history.
“We’ve not gotten a lot of attention lately, and I still don’t think people respect what these guys have,” said coach Brandon Hutchins. “I’ve been telling them all year this is our time.”
The Panthers relish the chance to play in high-stakes games after missing out on the playoffs last season. The intensity of the Battle of the Bubble gave them the kind of test they would face in a postseason game, and the team responded. They are on the cusp of their own run, extending their early-season record to 3-1 with a 66-61 win over McIntosh.
“We took our lumps last year, but still finished 12-12,” said Hutchins. “We’ve been grooming these guys. We’ve been getting them ready for this atmosphere. It’s their turn.”
The game started out in thrilling fashion, both teams feeding off the energy of the frenzied crowd. Chaz Hardin sparked the Chiefs early with a pair of three-pointers, but the Panthers offense was quick to respond.
The Chiefs set to out to take super sophomore Nate Allison out of the game, but the Panthers knew they could lean on juniors Zach Pina and Drew Hudson to carry the load. Pina, in particular got overshadowed around the county last year with Will Washington of McIntosh and Christian Turner of Sandy Creek stealing the show at point guard. Both of those guys are off to play at the college level now, and Pina, the third-year starter, is more than capable of being one of the best floor generals. He responded against McIntosh with 20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Drew Hudson shared the load, posting his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Chase Sands added 10 points and 5 rebounds.
Pina knotted the game up at 6-6 on a double-clutch bucket then drove and dished to Sands for a two-hand dunk and a lead they would never relinquish. A Nick Karli jumper and a Sands bucket extended the lead, but a Mitch Maxwell get-back block and a Will Stowman dish to Bruce Carpenter kept the Chiefs close.
Pina followed with a pull-up jumper and a three-pointer, and Andrew Pinckney responded with his own five-point run to keep Starr’s Mill’s lead at 23-19 after the first quarter.
The back-and-forth flow continued early in the second, Hudson hitting a three, and Maxwell kicking it to Joseph Cummings for two. Karli contributed a pair of buckets, but McIntosh got a pair from Cole Guenther and a trey from Maxwell to get within two at 30-28.
Starr’s Mill got into the groove from there, closing out the half on a 12-1 run, keyed by four points off the bench by James Harris. McIntosh closed out the half with Hardin dishing to Pinckney for a layup to make it a 42-31 game heading into the locker rooms.
The team’s traded threes after the break, Hudson and Pina hitting for the Panthers, and Guenther for the Chiefs. Starr’s Mill’s lead would peak at 53-36 on a Hudson putback before McIntosh made their charge, sparked in part by Ben Bryant drawing two crucial charge calls on the defensive end. Hardin and Carpenter chipped in their share of points as the gap was sliced down to 55-50 at the end of the third.
Pina ensured the slide would not continue, opening the final frame with a three-pointer. The defenses locked in as the scoring slowed way down until past the midway point of the quarter. Hudson found his rhythm with a block and a bucket to push the lead back to 60-52 with three minutes to play.
With each punch the Chiefs landed late, the Panthers had a counter punch. After Hardin notched a three-point play, Karli launched an inbounds pass the length of the court to Harris for an easy two. When Hardin sank two free throws, Pina did the same. McIntosh got their closest late when Hardin swiped the ball and fed Guenther, who drew the foul and sank both freebies to get within 64-61 with 41 seconds to play.
With the game on the line, Pina calmly sank his ensuing two shots. Hudson iced the game when he missed the front half of a one-and-one with ten seconds to play, but got his own rebound to kill the clock.
Bruce Carpenter led the Chiefs in scoring with 12 points, including 4 of 4 on free throws. Chaz Hardin finished with 11 points, 5 assists, and 4 steals. Andrew Pinckney added 11 points.
The teams will meet again January 20 at McIntosh.
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