Northampton girls team grabs top spot in WMass basketball tourney
SPRINGFIELD — The Northampton girls basketball team has been building toward this season.
Now coach Perry Messer wants to see his Blue Devils take the next step.
After a long run around the top of the region, Northampton missed the postseason in 2010 and, with one senior on each of its last three teams, worked its way back up the ladder.
The Blue Devils (16-4) earned the top spot in the Western Massachusetts Division 1 Tournament when the official seedings were revealed Saturday at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Now Messer wants to see his group win its first tournament game.
“We have to get this team over the hump,” Messer said. “They haven’t won a playoff game yet. We have played tough in (quarterfinal losses the last two years), but now it is time to grow up. It’s gong to take a good effort, but I think we’ll be ready.”
The Blue Devils, who last earned the top spot in 2007, will host their first home playoff game since 2009 when they take on either No. 8 Agawam (12-8) or No. 9 Pittsfield (13-7) on Friday at 7 p.m.
The quirks of the Walker System used in WMass for seedings resulted in a relatively difficult quarterfinal matchup for Northampton, as it could host a very talented Pittsfield squad.
The Generals were strongly penalized in the Walker because they play a mostly Division 2 and 3 schedule as the lone D-1 team in Berkshire County, but they are widely considered much stronger than their ranking and have beaten Northampton twice in the last two years.
“Let’s be realistic, they are not the 9 seed,” Messer said. “We played everybody in Division 1. They are one of the toughest teams we’ve had to play all year. They are probably a top 3 team. Where the walker puts them is where it puts them, but I fully expect to see them (Friday). They have good players. They play hard, physical, tough basketball. (Senior Courtney) McLaughlin is a handful at guard and they have a bunch of other guys who can score.”
McLaughlin averaged 15.1 points per game in the regular season.
Northampton won 11 straight games during the middle of the season, but went 2-2 in its final four contests. It also suffered a 54-42 loss at Pittsfield on Dec. 23. The Blue Devils beat Agawam 49-40 at home on Jan. 8.
The 2007 team finished as WMass runners-up. The 2008 team won the state championship out of the No. 2 seed.
Northampton missed the tournament in 2010, was the No. 6 seed in 2011 and No. 5 last year. The Blue Devils had each of their last two postseasons end in the quarterfinals in Amherst.
“We’ve had two years in a row where we put ourselves in position by not finishing some games and got tough seedings,” Messer said. “Now we get to play at home.”
Northampton is led by a strong junior class highlighted by guards Anna Walther (13.5 points per game) and Maya Kerstetter (12.3) and center Anna Moore (7.6). The team’s lone senior, guard Susan Bell, and sophomore guard Charlotte Maurer, have helped anchor a strong defense.
This year’s Division 2 bracket is one of the deepest in memory, as virtually every team in the field is talented enough to make a deep run.
“There are 7,8,9 teams that could get to the finals or even win the whole thing,” said Hampshire Regional Rich Moussette, whose squad earned the highest ranking among local teams with the No. 2 spot.
The Raiders (17-3) have won eight straight games heading into Friday’s quarterfinals against the winner of Tuesday’s first round game between No. 7 Hoosac Valley (15-5) and No. 10 Palmer (10-10) in Cheshire.
Moussette said he hopes the home-court advantage will be in effect Friday night.
“I really hope the school, the students and the entire community get behind these girls,” he said. “They have a chance to do something special, and I hope to see a big, loud, fun crowd at the game.”
Monday’s first round matchup between No. 8 South Hadley (15-5) and No. 9 Easthampton (15-5) will be the ultimate battle of wills.
The Tigers play a frenzied pace, pressing on missed shots and looking to get as many field goal chances as possible. The Eagles, meanwhile, look to slow things down and pound the ball inside to standout senior center Elizabeth Whitney.
The winner of that game heads to North Adams to take on No. 1 Drury (15-3) in the quarterfinals Friday night.
On Tuesday, No. 5 Belchertown (14-6) will host No. 12 Southwick (10-10), while No. 11 Frontier (11-9) heads to No. 6 Mahar (16-4).
In a division dominated by Lee for so long, the No. 2 Wildcats (15-5) are one of the 12 “other” teams in D-3 this season.
No. 1 Sabis (21-1), a state runner-up last year, went undefeated against WMass teams this year and boasts the school’s all-time leading scorer in senior guard Jazmine Collins. The Bulldogs beat the Wildcats by 22 in Lee earlier this year.
No. 3 Granby (17-3) is the only other team to earn a bye to the quarterfinals in the 13-team field. Two of the Rams’ three losses were to Sabis.
In Tuesday’s first round, No. 5 Gateway (16-4) hosts No. 12 Pioneer Christian (10-10), No. 6 Hopkins (12-8) hosts No. 11 Pathfinder (13-7) and No. 10 Holyoke Catholic (9-11) heads to No. 7 New Leadership (15-5). The Gaels’ game will be played at Commerce High School.
Jim Pignatiello can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GazetteHS.