Bryant defeats Forest Hills, to meet Adams in title game

By Adam Ronis

Prior to their semifinal meeting on Saturday morning, Bryant faced Forest Hills twice in the regular season. After winning the first basketball game, 39-28, Bryant lost in the next matchup, 62-48, being down by as many 30 points mainly because of a successful Forest Hills' press. This had Bryant head coach Jimmy Exharos very concerned. To his surprise, fourth-seeded Forest Hills rarely went to the press in the playoff game, enabling top-seeded Bryant to prevail at St. John's University, 33-28.

The Owls will play for the Girls PSAL Class B Championship against John Adams on March 14 at Madison Square Garden at 3 p.m.

Losing is something Bryant (21-1) isn't accustomed to. Last year they went undefeated on the way to a championship season. The only blemish on the record this season was a loss to Forest Hills, causing some concern among Bryant.

“We were anticipating the press and they didn't do it,” Exharos said. “Last time we faced them they used it very effectively. I had no doubts we would win as long as we didn't get pressed and cough it up.”

“They seemed to figure it out after a while and we got in foul trouble,” Forest Hills head coach Marc Zaretsky gave as his reason for not utilizing the press often. “It's difficult to press on this bigger court. Our bench was shortened, making it even harder.”

Antoinette Priestly missed the last two regular season games and the two playoff games. The senior center is the first person off the bench, helping extend the rotation. She was unavailable, leaving the Rangers with one less option off the bench.

Madison Square Garden was the furthest thing from Bryant's minds after a lackluster first quarter. Forest Hills (22-3) opened the game with a 7-0 run before Bryant hit its first field goal with 2:30 remaining on a layup by sophomore Caroline Akhnoukh. At the end of one quarter Forest Hills led, 9-2.

“I don't think we came in with confidence,” Bryant center Shatyia Henderson said. “It was a little tough in the beginning. We were nervous. After the first we calmed down and got it together. I was a little tired this morning.”

Not only was it a very early starting time at 10 a.m., but the previous night Bryant held a senior dinner dance that Henderson attended along with four other seniors. She didn't come home until 12 a.m., leaving few hours for sleep since Henderson had to be at Bryant at 8:15 in the morning.

“I gave them a curfew, but I doubt any of them made it,” Exharos said. “I doubt they got much sleep. The first quarter was all butterflies. We are usually a slow starting team all the time. We have had first quarters where we score six and then score 30 points in the second.”

Eventually Henderson and her teammates came to life in the second half. Bryant trailed at the half, 17-13. Katherine Shea extended the lead to seven points for Forest Hills with a three from the top of the key with 6:03 remaining. That would be the only points for the Rangers, who went scoreless the rest of the quarter.

Camille Manning's three-pointer tied the game at 20. Henderson put Bryant ahead for the first time, 22-20, with diligent work on the offensive boards. After three misses by the Owls, Henderson (11 points) finally scored, as her grunt work under the basket gave Bryant multiple opportunities to score on many possessions.

Forest Hills went scoreless for seven minutes until a layup by Brigida Pezzulo closed the deficit to 24-22. Henderson then scored four straight points to build the lead back up to six for the Owls.

With Forest Hills down by four and 1:30 left, Forest Hills went to the press to force turnovers. Annette Cabrera alertly spotted Akhnoukh alone under the basket for a layup that seemingly put the game away at 30-24. Akhnoukh led the Owls with 12 points.

“Without a doubt this was her best game,” Exharos said. “She started off solid and then hit the wall because she never played this many games in a season.”

Pezzulo led the Rangers with 10 points and Zakia Barnes scored eight. Forest Hills scored only 11 points in the second half as the inability to hit shots cost it the game.

John Adams 39, Bushwick 37. John Adams (19-5) made it an all-Queens final by barely holding on. Yisselin Sanches missed a layup under the basket with one second remaining in the game to give the Spartans the victory. Adams' standout, Jennifer Porrazzo, fouled out with 5:47 remaining in the game with only five points. Michelle Tusa (15 points) and Alecia Fung (eight points and 26 rebounds) stepped up in Porrazo's absence. Fung grabbed 22 rebounds in a quarterfinal win over Thomas Jefferson so assistant coach James Pitman asked her to get 24 in this game and she did two better.

“Since the first game of the season we had faith we were going to the Garden,” Fung said.

“With her (Porrazo) in foul trouble I knew I had to step up and play harder,” Tusa said. “I seriously thought we needed her to win this game, but we all stepped up.”

Adams took the lead for good with 4:19 left in the fourth quarter on an offensive rebound and layup by Tusa for a 29-27 lead. Valerie Montes' 25 points led Bushwick (20-6).

“If we played them 10 more times it probably be a basket either way every time,” Adams' head coach Harold Krieger said.