SOMERS, N.Y.— Somers coach Marc Hattem uttered two simple words to his team on the eve of the Tuskers’ pivotal Section 1 Class A quarterfinal game: Pearl River.
More than a few heads turned.
Pearl River dealt a devastating loss to the Tuskers in the quarterfinals last season and Hattem’s squad was less than pleased with him after he brought it up.
But 24 hours later those scowls turned into jubilance as Somers was focused on two completely different words: County Center.
Second-seeded Somers booked its first trip to the Westchester County Center in program history by convincingly defeating No. 7 Rye 56-40 in the Section 1 Class A girls basketball quarterfinals on Feb. 23.
“We knew coming out of last year that this is something that we wanted,” sophomore Hannah Angelini said. “We needed this and worked so hard for this. Just to know that we did it and had to come back from losing last year is just the best feeling in the world.”
Somers, which had lost in the quarterfinals the previous three seasons, will face sixth-seeded Tappan Zee in the semifinals at the County Center on Thursday, March 2 at 3 p.m.
“It’s crazy and it means so much,” junior Jackie Penzo said. “We’ve worked so hard all season and we’re so excited to go there and play.”
The Tuskers led wire-to-wire against the defending Class A champion Garnets, a team they had easily disposed of early in the regular season.
“For us as a team, it’s a reward for our hard work,” senior captain Faith Anne Ferguson said of making the County Center. “We’ve been at this for months and between our scouting, practices and what we’ve done—it’s great to be able to get there. Last year was a heartbreaking loss, but this year with the transition it was a whole lot of relearning. I think it gave us motivation to get there and prove to everyone that we can do this.”
Penzo, who netted a team-high 18 points, started things off by nailing a 3-pointer to give the Tuskers a 12-6 lead after one quarter.
Freshman Danielle DiCintio and Penzo splashed back-to-back threes late in the second quarter to put Somers up 23-14. A DiCintio drive and finish followed by a Penzo bucket on a feed from Angelini had Somers up 27-17 at halftime.
DiCintio, who finished with 13 points, started where she left off in the third quarter by nailing a 3-pointer.
“I’m so proud of her,” Penzo said. “She drove when she needed to and hit shots when she needed to. She really came ready to play today.”
The freshman, who is the daughter of boys varsity coach Chris DiCintio, displays composure well beyond her years.
“If Dani was a senior, this would have been the best game of her life,” Hattem said. “For a 14-year-old kid to play like that—I don’t know if she turned it over once either.”
An Angelini floater and 3-pointer saw Somers take a commanding 35-20 lead midway through the third quarter. Ferguson received a feed from Angelini and then Angelini drove and scored to put the Tuskers up 39-23. Angelini scored 10 of her 11 points during the third-quarter run.
“When you see that ball fall through the net you get so excited,” Angelini said. “You get excited for your teammates and you get excited for yourself. It went in our way with the shots falling and it’s just surreal. I can’t describe it.”
Angelini was busy setting up her teammates throughout the game on top of scoring 11 points.
“Coach has always told me that he has the trust in me to be a decision maker on the floor and not just a scorer,” she said. “I kind of feed off of that and I feed off the energy of my teammates. I have so much trust in all of them and know that they’re going to hit the open shot or make the right play. The chemistry on the team just makes it so much easier.”
Penzo’s driving lefty layup gave Somers a 16-point lead with 25 seconds left in the third quarter. DiCintio set up Ferguson with two seconds left to basically seal the win as the Tuskers led 48-30.
“They weren’t going to be denied,” Hattem said. “They had a look in their eye. At the half I said to them, ‘Just play the best three or four minutes of your life right now.’ They came out and played like they wanted it. They just were going to win this game no matter what it took. These kids were laser focused.”
Penzo started the fourth quarter by just beating the shot clock with a three after a feed from DiCintio. She then converted two more buckets with her final basket making it 56-38 with three minutes to go.
“We stuck to coach’s game plan,” Penzo said. “We marked Katie Popp and had to stop her from shooting. We also had to contain [Kate Robbins]. She only had three points. We just had to stop them from shooting and push it on offense and score.”
The starting five of Penzo, DiCintio, Angelini, Ferguson (eight points) and junior Liv Lipski (six points) played virtually the whole game. Fatigue, however, wasn’t an issue according to Angelini.
“I’m a little tired now, but in the game we were all so in the zone and focused on what we have to do,” Angelini said. “We just had to work to get that ‘W’ and we did.”
Ferguson said it was their will to win which drove them to play the majority of the 32 minutes.
“We were all getting tired but we had 16 minutes to play at halftime,” Ferguson said. “You’re going to play those 16 minutes with all your heart.”
A win in the semifinals will pit the Tuskers against either top-seeded Walter Panas or fifth-seeded Eastchester on Sunday, March 5 at 7 p.m.
“We just have to play with all our heart,” Penzo said. “We have to play really great defense. Hopefully we’ll hit shots there, run through our sets and just do everything coach tells us to do.”
The Tuskers played two games at the County Center earlier this season in the Slam Dunk Tournament.
“We know the atmosphere now and we know the ins and outs of the court,” Ferguson said. “I think having played there before we’ll have a little insight.”
While making it to the County Center is an achievement in itself, Hattem knows there is more work to do.
“The bottom line is we still have to win two more games,” he said. “This is great, but to me it’s nothing. You’ve got to go win two more games and that’s the goal.”