BRAINTREE, Mass. -– At times, Braintree’s momentum feels like an avalanche. Once the Wamps get going on the defensive end, it’s tough to slow down.
On days like this afternoon, when jump shooting was an adventure at certain points, the No. 1 Wamps took care of business on the glass against upstart Franklin to keep the Panthers from ever making a serious run at it. Braintree cruised to an easy 52-35 win, its fourth straight game holding an opponent to under 40 points, in its home-opener and rematch of last season’s MIAA Division 1 South Final.
“That’s huge for us. Defense and rebounding are everything for us,” Wamps head coach Kristen McDonnell said of the rebounding advantage. “And that was the whole flow of the game. When we were rebounding and playing defense, it was 15-1, 20-3, in terms of points scoring. When we let down –- which we did at times tonight –- we let a team like Franklin, who to their credit never stops coming at you, back into the game. We just have to be more consistent.”
The Wamps could have been more consistent from the field, as they shot just 36 percent from the floor – including a 30.5 percent clip in the first half, and 3-for-19 mark from three-point range. McDonnell said that was “hopefully a fluke game”, noting how strong they’d been in that area in their first three wins over Milton, Dedham and La Salle Academy (R.I.).
McDonnell also acknowledged, however, that it’s probably due to the fact this was the best defensive team she’s faced to date.
“Credit Franklin, they obviously put pressure everywhere,” McDonnell said. “They know our strengths, and they took those away right away. They collapsed, so we had to take those outside shots to stay in. We did what we had to, thank God, but we still struggled at times.”
Overall, Braintree (4-0) held a 45-21 advantage on the boards, including a 15-1 first quarter margin that saw them pull down the first nine boards. Eight of those 15 first-quarter boards came on the offensive end, which led to a slew of trips to the foul line. The Wamps converted three-point plays three times in the opening stanza, going 6-for-7 overall from the charity stripe.
Opening the game in a 2-2-1 press, with sisters Bridget (eight points, 12 rebounds, three blocks) and Brianna Herlihy (12 points, 10 rebounds) in the middle and junior center Molly Reagan (17 points, six rebounds, two blocks) deep in the frontcourt, the Wamps applied tight pressure early that led to a 17-4 advantage after one quarter.
Reagan opened the scoring blitzkrieg up with a three-point play off an offensive rebound, then two more free throws, followed by a three-point play from Bridget Herlihy to make it 8-0. A few minutes later, Bridget made a steal at mid-court and converted another three-point play for a 14-2 advantage.
She then closed the quarter out with an inspiring series of hustle plays that led to a 15-footer for her sister. After missing a free throw, she corralled in her own rebound, missed, then swung to the other side of the basket and knocked the ball off an opponent to set up an inbounds play. Out of that, Brianna swung around to the elbow and knocked down the open look.
The Wamps took a 31-17 lead into the break, and led 42-26 after three.
Transformers: In the second quarter, Reagan pulled off the prettiest move of the afternoon. Off an errant Brianna Herlihy three-point attempt, Reagan gathered near the left elbow and went up and under to the opposite glass, switching hands and finishing with her left. A few moments later, Ashley Russell threw a bullet of a pass from the top of the key to Bridget Herlihy at the left block; Bridget immediately tapped the high pass across the paint to Reagan for an easy lay-in.
The transformations with both Reagan and Bridget Herlihy has been noticeable.
At 6-foot-2 with a strong frame, Reagan already came into the season regarded as one of the state’s most intimidating post players. But she’s shown noticeably more mobility, which McDonnell takes advantage of by bringing her out top to facilitate a high-low game.
“What we’re having her do more of this year is more of her finesse game,” McDonnell said. “She has such a good shot from the outside, and she can bring their best defender out with them. So, we’re letting her more in our offense shoot from the outside, and she’s making really smart decisions. We didn’t do it as much with her outside, but typically she’s making good decisions in terms of, whether to dive down and take it on the block.
“I think just her physicality and her build now is lending itself to a more balanced game. Physically, she’s balanced on the post, she makes better moves, she has better angles on the post than she did before. And that’s going to come with age, too.”
The same can be said for Bridget Herlihy, the reigning Bay State Conference MVP last season. In her junior campaign this season, she is demonstrating more upper body strength so far this season, more power driving to the hole and moves more fluidly.
“These girls, they worked really hard in the offseason,” McDonnell said. “They worked with a few trainers, played all year round –- which most kids do nowadays –- but they really got after it and transformed not just their bodies, but their game.”
Recruiting buzz: Braintree is one of those rare programs in Massachusetts where it can be a chore tracking all of the recruiting activity, due to the high volume. Four of the Wamps’ five regular starters –- Reagan, Russell and the Herlihy sisters –- are receiving Division 1 interest at the moment.
Schools as far-ranging as UConn, Michigan, Kentucky and DePaul have all been in at various points to check on players. Both Boston College and Holy Cross have offered Reagan and both Herlihy sisters, while Virginia Tech and William & Mary have offers out to Bridget Herlihy. Rhode Island, Fairfield and Quinnipiac have come in with offers as well, while Ashley Russell is receiving interest from the Ivy Leagues, as well as Division 2 programs Stonehill and Bentley.
“What the nicest part about [this] is, is here’s these kids getting all this recruiting, they’re getting built up with all this hype and stuff, and yet they’re the most modest, down to earth unselfish kids you’ll ever meet,” McDonnell said.