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Easthampton beats Hopkins, takes control of Franklin South in girls basketball

EASTHAMPTON — The Easthampton girls basketball team took a big step toward the Franklin South title Tuesday night.

The Eagles, who shared the championship with Hopkins Academy last year, defeated the Golden Hawks 51-39 at home.

“It feels like it is going to come down to us and Hopkins, like last year,” senior center Elizabeth Whitney said. “So getting the first win puts us ahead of them, so that feels good.”

The teams, who split their two games last year — with the road team winning each time — will square off again in Hadley on Feb. 7.

Last year, “we lost in overtime and then won here,” Hopkins coach Fred Ciaglo said. “So, let’s reverse it this year. We’ll need to beat them at our place.”

Whitney scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds as the Eagles (8-1, 5-1 Franklin South) extended their winning streak to six.

“It is really excited” to be 8-1, said senior forward Kelly Avard, whose team reached the Western Massachusetts Division 2 semifinals one year ago. “It’s really fun and I just want to keep it going. We had a great season last year and we’re trying to continue this year.”

In a battle of big and slow against small and fast, the Eagles dictated the pace for much of the game and handled the Hopkins (5-4, 5-2) press well after a rough start.

“It’s no surprise. We always know that they are going to press us,” Whitney said. “I think this year we’ve realized that they can’t be in all places at the same time, so we need to find the open person. In every practice, we work on some type of press break and I think it is showing.”

The Eagles committed nine turnovers in the first quarter and trailed 9-5 when Hopkins’ Mackenzie Sullivan knocked down a 3-pointer from the left baseline with 2 minutes, 1 second left in the quarter.

But Easthampton settled down from there, giving the ball away just nine more times in the remaining 26:01 and went on a 15-0 run that essentially sealed the victory.

“We’re trying to get the ball in position to run offense. We don’t want to come down and take something outside of the offense,” Easthampton coach Jay Fortier said. “That’s not what we are. We are a half-court team. We set it up and either pound it in, take the 3 or Kelly takes the 15-footer. That’s what we do. The last thing we want to do is get out and run with (Hopkins’) Olivia (Mathieu) and the Sullivans (Kate and Mackenzie). We’d get buried.”

Both Sullivans spent time on the bench in the first half with foul trouble as they had much of the burden of slowing down Whitney underneath.

“They kept pounding it inside to Whitney and got us in foul trouble and I think that was a huge part of it. We couldn’t stay with them after that,” Ciaglo said. Whitney is “a senior. She’s a strong player and a veteran. We came out strong, but we got tired. We fronted her, but we couldn’t stay in front. Whenever we gave her an opening, they pounded it in to her and she either put it in or went to the free-throw line. You have to keep it out of her hands. You have to make the other girls beat you.”

Mackenzie Sullivan led Hopkins with 16 points, including five 3-pointers, while Mathieu added 12.

For Easthampton, Avard had 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Kristen Windoloski and Courtney Nelson-DeNucce added nine points each. All four of Avard’s assists were passes from the high post inside to Whitney.

“We always look at angles,” Avard said. “If she’s not open, we always try to enter and reenter. We are always looking for her.”

Hopkins mixed things up defensively throughout the contest. It had some success early, limiting the Whitney’s touches in the first quarter, but she scored three points late in that frame and Windolowski made a 3-pointer from the top of key early in the second that seemed to stretch things out a bit.

“At this point in her career, we’ve seen pretty much all of it,” Fortier said. “The key is you get Windoloski to hit a couple of 3s. Kelly makes that little jumper and hits the boards hard and then (point guard Nelson-DeNucce) was controlling the perimeter.

“Sooner or later, (Whitney) is going to get open. She’s too good,” he added. “If you watch her, she’s never standing stationary in the post. She’s always looking to get an angle. And our job is to look to get an angle to enter it.”

Fortier said the key is for the Eagles to take what the opposition is giving them.

“Our kids are charged with the first thing they do when they catch the ball on the wing, is look at the defender” guarding Whitney, he added. “If the defender is above, they’ve got to get it to the corner and enter below. If the defender is below, they get it to Kelly and we enter above. We work at it and work at it and work at it, and (Whitney) flat-out finishes.”

Jim Pignatiello can be reached at jpignatiello@gazettenet.com.

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