Recap: No. 1 Braintree 53, No. 3 Newton North 42

NEWTON, Mass. – Braintree’s last trip to the Reggie Gymnasium, a January 2013 upset by Newton North that knocked the then-No. 1 Wamps from atop their perch, was a forgettable experience. Head coach Kristen McDonnell admitted this afternoon’s return to the home court of Newton North was a date that “has been circled on our calendar for a while”.

That upset a year ago saw the Tigers jump out to a double-digit lead early and never look back. This time, it was the Wamps (7-0) jumping out early, wading through a physical Tigers (7-1) defense to take an 18-point lead into the final quarter, then holding on tight for a 53-42 victory in the first of two Bay State Conference clashes between these teams.

“I was proud of the way these kids came out and toughed it out right away,” McDonnell said. “We knew the first 2-3 minutes of this game was going to be everything, just to show the tempo of the game and how bad we wanted it. And I thought, figuratively, we threw the first punch tonight. And at times we got sloppy, but it’s just stuff that we’ll be able to work with going forward.”

Those first few minutes were about as physical a fight as the Wamps have probably seen so far this season, yet by the end of the first quarter they were ahead 17-8, and extended the lead further to 28-16 at the break. That included a putback from Brianna Herlihy (11 points) followed by a walk-up three-pointer by 6-foot-2 center Molly Reagan, from deep behind the arc, late in the stanza.

Junior point guard Ashley Russell took over in the third quarter, scoring 12 of her game-high 21 points in the frame with some darting play around the rim, sandwiched between a pair of sweet strokes from the perimeter. She extended the lead to 37-22 with a three-pointer, then followed it up the next trip down with an old-fashioned three-point play, grabbing her own rebounding after over-shooting the basket from the baseline and drawing a foul on the way up to a put-back.

A few possessions later, Russell made it 43-25 with a three in the corner, off a beautiful cross-court pass from Bridget Herlihy (10 points) on the opposite wing.

“Ashley is a warrior,” McDonnell said. “I told her the other day, ‘I will go to war with you any day of the week’. She’s just so tough, and she’s not flashy but she gets it done possession by possession, offensively and defensively.”

From therein, however, North was the aggressor, and nearly pulled even. Trailing by 18 to start the fourth, the Tigers cut the lead down to six with four minutes to go. After being bottled up for most of the game, Holy Cross-bound guard Infiniti Thomas-Waheed exploded for seven points in the final eight minutes.

Snatching a defensive board at her own baseline, Thomas-Waheed went coast to coast, finishing near the rim to cut Braintree’s lead to 43-33, then fired up a trey the next trip down. Freshman Sayawni Lassiter (14 points) then grabbed her own rebound off a missed one-and-one free throw, drew a foul again, then made 1-of-2 at the stripe to bring the lead down to 43-37.

Thomas-Waheed fouled out with three minutes to go, however, leaving the Tigers without their best on-ball defender. With a void on the wing, the Herlihy sisters took advantage, Bridget hitting her sister Brianna along the baseline for a 10-point lead with 2:04 to go.

Solving Infiniti: The last time North and Braintree squared off, the 6-foot Thomas-Waheed was a royal pain for the Wamps at both ends of the floor, leading the Tigers with 13 points but also turning in some inspiring defensive stops along the wing to make entry passes a chore.

With a full head of steam, there are few in Massachusetts quite like Thomas-Waheed, gliding like a gazelle in transition for some of the most beautiful coast-to-coast finishes you’ll see around, and using her length and lateral quickness to harass a team’s top scorer all the way to the exit signs.

Tonight, however, Thomas-Waheed ran into some struggles early, held to just two points until the final quarter. Junior Bridget Herlihy proved a worthy adversary, as the two exchanged blocks and deflections.

“We knew she was a long player, she could play really good defense, she could run through people in three strides and be at the basket,” Russell said of Thomas-Waheed, an ESPN Boston All-State selection last season. “We knew we had to stop her on defense. Our main focus on defense was, ‘Where is Infiniti?’ We had to know where she was at all times, because she can shoot, she can drive, she can do everything. We had to contest everything with her.

“We knew they screened a lot on the outside for her, when our coach scouted her, she saw that they would screen her a lot on drives to the basket. We focused on hedging off screens.”

Boy scouts: It is not uncommon for women’s basketball teams at the college level to use male players on its scout team. Newton North coach Linda Martindale is probably no stranger to the strategy, from her playing days at the University of Arizona; according to McDonnell, Martindale let it slip to her after last year’s upset that she had employed to strategy to prepare for the Wamps.

McDonnell kept that thought in her memory bank, and now regularly uses JV players from the boys’ basketball team on scout several times a week.

“They’re great because the athleticism of the boys in general just makes us up our game in practice,” McDonnell said. “We’ve been doing that a lot, and it really helped a lot. All the colleges do it, and [Martindale] actually said that when they won last year, she said they brought in the JV team to play against them. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll keep that one in the back of my head’. So now we have a whole scout team. They have uniforms. It’s pretty funny, it’s good.”