MIAA girls basketball: In the Div. 4 semis for the 2nd time in 3 years, South Hadley looking to break through

South Hadley’s Drew Alley (1) drives to the hoop against Pittsfield in the fourth quarter of the Western Mass. Class B girls basketball championship last month at Holyoke Community College.

South Hadley’s Drew Alley (1) drives to the hoop against Pittsfield in the fourth quarter of the Western Mass. Class B girls basketball championship last month at Holyoke Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

South Hadley’s Maddie Soderbaum (3) drives to the hoop against Pittsfield’s Caroline Sherman (12) in the second quarter of the Western Mass. Class B girls basketball championship last weekend at Holyoke Community College.

South Hadley’s Maddie Soderbaum (3) drives to the hoop against Pittsfield’s Caroline Sherman (12) in the second quarter of the Western Mass. Class B girls basketball championship last weekend at Holyoke Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-11-2024 5:28 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Ahead by two points in the final seconds of last Thursday’s MIAA Division 4 quarterfinal game against No. 6 Cohasset, the No. 3 South Hadley girls basketball team needed one stop to advance to its second Final Four in three seasons.

But Skippers forward Sarah Chenette drew a foul and sank both shots from the line to send the game to overtime.

The Tigers never panicked.

The four-minute extra frame was dominated by South Hadley and its defense, as the Tigers outscored Cohasset 9-2 and clawed their way to an 18th straight win – defeating the Skippers 53-46 in the quarterfinal round.

“That was definitely the most exciting game we played all year, a high school basketball game doesn’t go into overtime very often,” captain Drew Alley, the lone Tigers senior, said afterward. “It’s definitely fun to experience.”

With the win, South Hadley (21-3) earned a state semifinal date with No. 2 Tyngsborough on Tuesday night at Worcestor State University. The winner of that contest, which is scheduled to start at 5 p.m., heads to the championship game this weekend at Tsongas Center in Lowell.

Although Tyngsborough will be the toughest, most complete team South Hadley has faced all season, head coach Paul Dubuc is more worried about the way his team plays – not his opponent. If the Tigers empty the tank on Tuesday, they like their chances to compete for their first state championship in program history.

“We [want to] play 32 minutes as hard as we can, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may,” Dubuc said earlier this year. “But if we play 32 minutes as hard as we can and somebody’s not ready to go, they’re gonna have a long night.”

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South Hadley’s offense is high-flying, and Dubuc urges his team to run in transition with every opportunity that presents itself. Over their last six games, which dates back to the start of the Western Mass. Class B tournament, the Tigers are averaging just under 60 points per game.

They also love to bring pressure defensively, whether it be a full-court man-to-man press or full-court zone press. Having a rotation of eight or nine players allows South Hadley to run as much as it does.

“A lot of teams think they can run, but they better be able to run for four quarters, because that’s what we’ll do,” Dubuc said. “We talk about it all the time. We wanna be able to slow it down in the fourth quarter, but if we can’t, we’ll just keep going. I can put Cara [Dean], Kate [Phillips] and Taylor [Bullough] in, who are all freshmen by the way, at the three-minute mark [of the first quarter] and we can do whatever we need to do. And then we just rotate. If somebody’s in foul trouble, we don’t have to worry.”

As has been said many times throughout the year, it’s quite tough to figure out how to defend this South Hadley team on film. Seven players – Drew Alley, Ava Asselin, Caitlin Dean, Cara Dean, CC Gurek, Kate Phillips and Maddie Soderbaum – have all scored 140 points or more this season.

Everyone has at one point led the team in scoring in a game this year.

“They all like each other, and they all seem to play for each other,” Dubuc said. “That’s one of the things we put on our board before games. ‘Open person has to get the ball, take care of each other and take care of your home court.’”

That message is perhaps exactly why South Hadley is such a dangerous team. The upperclassmen are as unselfish as it gets, leaning on freshmen Kate Phillips, Cara Dean and Taylor Bullough just as much as each other.

Five players have scored five or more points in all but one of the Tigers’ six postseason games including the Western Mass. tournament.

“They bring a lot to the table,” Gurek said of the underclassmen. “They’re held to really high standards, and they always meet those expectations every night. It’s really nice to be able to count on people who can come in the game and make a play.”

Typically when a team builds a winning streak like the one South Hadley has, it only adds pressure to each game because they want to keep it going. But the Tigers have a different view on it.

They’re more focused on playing their brand of basketball, with the hot stretch only adding motivation.

“The streak is nothing but motivation for us to keep playing well and keep it up,” Alley said. “It gives us momentum, but I think we just play our game regardless of the streak. If we keep bringing energy to each game, we know we’ll be in a good spot.”

Dubuc has that same mindset. And when South Hadley is at its best, which it seems to have been for over two months straight, he gets a front row seat to the show.

After struggling from behind the arc against Cohasset in the quarterfinals, the Tigers are hoping to put forth their best shooting performance of their postseason during Tuesday’s battle with Tyngsborough to clinch a spot in the title tilt.

“Once we get rolling, it’s fun to watch and fun to coach,” Dubuc said. “The lead goes from seven, to 15 to 25 pretty quick. And that’s something we work on. We talk a lot about trying to get three stops in a row and then convert on the other end. When we shoot well, we’re a dangerous team.”

Tuesday’s game marks the second time South Hadley has reached the state semifinals in the three years of the new statewide tournament format. In 2022, the Tigers, seeded eighth, lost to No. 4 Amesbury in the semis before Amesbury went on to beat Millbury for the Division 4 state crown.