SYRACUSE – Waterville’s Sophie Wittenbeck wasn’t at all surprised by the full-court pressure applied — right from opening tip to tearful, bitter end — by the Edwards-Knox girls basketball team.
What surprised her was the effect it had on the Section III Class D champions.
"Really frazzled" is how Wittenbeck described it.
"It was their pressure. … We felt it," said the Waterville senior guard whose high school career had just ended with a 58-42 loss to Section X champion Edwards-Knox in a Central Region final at Onondaga Community College’s SRC Arena.
That full-court pressure didn’t always force a Waterville turnover, but the Cougars did force the issue with an aggressive defense that forced the Indians to play fast and eventually, force one miss after another at the other end.
The Section III champions ended up shooting 26 percent (14 for 53) from the field and they committed 20 turnovers.
"It was so tight, we had to move the ball quicker," Waterville senior Aliah Decker said of the Edwards-Knox defense. "Usually, that’s when we’re better."
This was not, however, a normal, business-as-usual day for Waterville (20-5), said longtime head coach Larry Stockwell, as surprised as anyone by the way his team handled the pressure and shot the basketball.
"Wrong day to have a bad day," Stockwell said. "That just wasn’t us today. Take nothing away from (Edwards-Knox) — they’re a good team — but I don’t know who that was out there today. … Normally, we like to run, we just didn’t do it successfully today.
"How many bunnies did we miss? We were off today, and you can’t have an off day, not at this level. … We’ve been practicing against the 2-2-1 press. We were just making uncharacteristic passes against it. We weren’t reversing the ball. We weren’t attacking it. … We’re usually a team that attacks pressure."
That was not the case Saturday. Not against the Cougars (22-1).
Junior forward Carly Frary scored 20 points, junior guard Koryn Rowe — a high-energy force at both ends of the court — had 15 points, eight rebounds and four steals — and junior center Riannon Holly added nine points and 17 rebounds for an Edwards-Knox team that earlier this month captured its first Section X title.
Sophomore point guard Abigail Hart, yet another underclassman, scored 10 points — nine in the fourth quarter — on 10-of-12 free throw shooting and had four assists for the Cougars, who advance to the Class D state final four next weekend at Hudson Valley Community College.
"We wanted to move the ball as fast as we could; we’re a fast-paced team," Rowe said, her team’s pressure defense helping the Cougars do just that. "They weren’t ready for it, and that was good for us. We took advantage of it."
Wittenbeck, just the second Waterville girl to score 1,000 career points — she finished with 1,082 — led the Indians with 12 points, but they all came in the fourth quarter and she finished 3 for 15 from the field.
"I wish we played a little harder in the beginning and didn’t lose our cool," she said.
Waterville led 6-4 midway through the first quarter, but was then outscored 22-4. The Indians ended the first period with a nifty Decker-to-Janelle Cleary basket that beat the buzzer and cut the Edwards-Knox lead to 12-8, but Waterville went nearly the entire second quarter without a field goal.
Led by Rowe’s two coast-to-coast baskets — one off a defensive rebound and another off a steal — the Cougars went on a 14-2 run that forced two Waterville timeouts and gave Edwards-Knox a 26-10 lead. Only two free throws by Molly Williams with 1:30 left and a last-minute lift from Anna Beach — who drained a 3-pointer with 36 seconds remaining — kept Waterville within 26-15 at the break.
Yes, Waterville was within 11 at halftime, even though two of its leading scorers — Wittenbeck and Kathleen Gallagher — had yet to score and a third, junior Molly Williams, had been limited to three free throws.
Williams would finish with eight points and eight rebounds before fouling out, and Gallagher would score all six of her points in the third quarter. Edwards-Knox led by as many as 17 points in a third period that ended with the Cougars in 43-28 command.
Led by Wittenbeck and Cleary, Waterville drew as close as 11 with just over two minutes to play, but the Cougars made their free throws — finishing 16 for 22 from the foul line — down the stretch.
"We still had a great season," an emotional Decker said on her 18th birthday. "We had great chemistry. Our fans were always there for us. … We’re all very close."
"I’m still proud of them," Stockwell said. "It’s an awesome group of young ladies."
Waterville starters Wittenbeck, Decker and Emilie Phillips will be lost to graduation.
"I love this team and I will remember this season for the rest of my life," Wittenbeck said. "It was a great ride for a little town."