SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- It's tough scouting a team from the other side of the country. It's even tougher when it's the No. 1 player in the country you're going against, and all you've got to work with are a couple of YouTubes.
But it'd be hard to walk away from Braintree's 51-42 loss to Springfield (Ore.) tonight at the Hoophall Classic, at Springfield College's Blake Arena, and not be impressed with Wamps head coach Kristen McDonnell's gameplan.
Against the Millers' Tennessee-bound superstar, 6-foot-5 forward Mercedes Russell, Braintree came out and put real estate at a premium in the paint. Bracketing and sandwiching Russell with a triangle-and-two defense in the first quarter, they made sure Russell would have to earn her baskets, as the Millers struggled to funnel offense inside to her. When they switched to a man-to-man, alternating between sophomores Molly Reagan and Bridget Herlihy, they positioned well and were able to jump passing lanes for some deflections.
"I guess it's tough when you're scouting and you're only going off highlight films," McDonnell said. "And then you're trying to come up wtih a strategy to stop this big-time player. Our goal was to sandwich her at all times.
"For the most part, we were effective in what we were trying to do. The thing is that any letdown we have, she's going to take advantage of. The handful of times we did, she scored. I thought we played really hard, though."
Russell, ranked the nation's No. 1 overall senior by ESPN HoopGurlz, finished with nearly a triple-double, with 25 points (8-of-11 field goals), 17 rebounds and eight blocks.
"It was crazy," said the 6-foot-2 Reagan, who finished with 11 points and six rebounds. "Meeting someone who's that tall and that talented, with Tennessee and stuff, it was just interesting to put what you know you can do against someone of that [caliber]. You have to raise your own level."
The Wamps (11-1), ranked No. 1 in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll, took a 10-8 lead after one quarter thanks to a deep buzzer-beating three from sophomore Bridget Herlihy, completing an 8-2 run. But things unraveled quickly after that, with the Millers outscoring Braintree 16-1 in the second quarter, allowing no Wamp field goals. Where Russell was adequate in the post in the first quarter, she was a catalyst in transition, triggering a series of fast breaks with deep outlet passes, then cleaning up as the trailer charging down the lane. In the halfcourt, she would step out to the elbow and clear the runway for Danea Swartout (10 points) or Ashley Richey (eight).
At the half, Russell had 14 points, eight rebounds and six blocks. Meanwhile, Braintree had registered just three field goals, part of a dismal 3-for-34 effort from the field (just 8.8 percent).
However, the Wamps found some late life in the fourth quarter, cutting the Millers' lead to 40-36 with 6:08 to go after a quick five-point swing. First, sophomore Ashley Russell (11 rebounds) drew a foul on the way up after freshman Brianna Herlihy (14 points) missed a layup, and completed the three-point play. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Reagan snatched a high outlet pass near the scorer's table and peppered one off the glass. That was the last field goal the Wamps registered for the game, settling for free throws the rest of the way as Springfield closed out on a 12-6 run.
Russell vs. Reagan delivers: The most intriguing matchup was between Mercedes Russell and Reagan, who herself holds an offer from Boston College. The battled posed all sorts of challenges for Reagan -- "Her arms are so long!" she exclaimed -- the latter some kind words to say about Reagan.
"It was a good matchup," she said. "She is tall, she's strong, and very physical."
Within Massachusetts, Reagan is held in high regard not just for physically imposing her will with her back to the basket, but also for being able to pop out for 16 to 18-footers, and filling the lane in transition. Russell, it goes without saying, is just on another level.
"She's the best I've ever seen," McDonnell said, including her own playing days at Stonehill College. "She's a 6-5 guard, you know? And she can take it from the perimeter. To have an entire team's offense and defense be based on one girl says a lot for her.
"And what's nice is she doesn't shoot it every time. She gets it to the open person, so she's feeding her teammates, she really does it all. Credit her, and credit her team."
Heating up on the recruiting front: Reagan isn't the only young Braintree star catching Division 1 interest locally. Rhode Island and UMass have offered both Herlihys', while Boston College has also offered Bridget. Holy Cross, meanwhile, has extended an offer to all three of the aforementioned. The Wamps' other star sophomore, Ashley Russell, figures to get her share of interest as well.