No. 8 Reading outmuscles No. 14 Stoneham

STONEHAM, Mass. -- Dribbling out the final seconds of the fourth quarter with her team comfortably ahead by double digits, Reading sophomore guard Olivia Healy crashed onto the hardwood after drawing an intentional foul from a disgruntled Stoneham defender.

Though subsequently going 1 for 2 at the line had little effect on the game, the foul itself served as a microcosm for the contest’s physical brand of play. Yet when 32 minutes of bumping and bodying by conference powers was completed, Reading (11-0) outfought Stoneham (9-2) on the road, 57-42, preserving its perfect record and position atop the Middlesex League.

“It’s like, a lot of fouls,” Reading head coach Kim Penney said of the game’s brute style. “It was a tough one. [Stoneham] is a physical team. They didn’t give up, that’s for sure. They played hard until the very end, and you’ve got to give them credit for that. But our kids are just as tough.”

Players wrestling for loose balls exposed both squads’ grit. Stoneham’s scrappy point guard, Ariana Tuccelli (eight points, five rebounds, three steals), ripped at a loose ball so hard during the first half that her opponent was sent to the floor. Minutes later, Reading captain Melissa DalPozzo (eight points, five rebounds) refused to surrender a rebound to two Stoneham forwards crashing the boards, forcing officials to call for a jump ball and separate the players.

Physical, indeed.

After a relatively sloppy first half for both teams—the Rockets led 20-15—Reading (11-0) came out of the gate on a 12-3 run, eight of which coming from forward captain Carlene Kluge (12 points, three rebounds, one assist), who was hindered by foul trouble for a good portion of the game. Altogether, the Rockets posted 21 points during the third-quarter scoring barrage.

“We had a great practice yesterday,” Penney said. “We were focused and ready to go. [Kluge], especially, was ready to go. She stayed mentally tough for everyone else. Her composure is always there and she’s a great leader.”

When Kluge picked up her fourth foul midway through the third quarter, the Rockets welcomed contributions from the sensational sophomore tandem of Healy (16 points, 12 rebounds, three steals, two assists) and Morgan O’Brien (14 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks), who combined for 14 of Reading’s 16 fourth-quarter points.

“[Healy] is one of the strongest players I’ve ever coached,” Penney said. ‘She wants the ball.”

And for Healy, it’s about believing in her counterpart’s ability to execute, she said.

“We can trust her,” Healy said of O’Brien. “She’s a great ballhandler, left and right is perfectly fine for her, and that’s a solid base to keep finishing off games.”

For her final two points, O’Brien converted a fast-break layup while getting fouled from behind, sending her to the floor holding her knee. She did not return to the game, and had her knee looked at following the game.

Despite suffering its second loss in as many games, the Spartans’ hardnosed defense had a phenomenal game statistically, forcing Reading to turn the ball over 22 times, while also tallying 11 steals, nine of which came in the first half.

For Stoneham (9-2), senior center and captain Vanessa Bramante led the way with a team-high 14 points to go along with five rebounds, four steals, one block and one assist. But a major turning point came with seven seconds left in the third period, when Bramante picked up her fourth foul on a controversial blocking foul as O’Brien attacked the basket.

Similarly, Healy picked up her fourth personal mere seconds into the fourth quarter, summoning her to the bench as Kluge—also with four fouls—re-entered the game. Stoneham’s Bramante and Reading’s Kluge fouled out within 30 seconds of each other with about three minutes to play.

The win puts the undefeated Reading squad in the conference driver’s seat, while Stoneham falls to third place, behind one-loss Woburn. For the Spartans, tonight’s third quarter exposes room for improvement, Bramante said.

“It’s about coming in strong every game,” she said. “And it really comes down to playing strong for all four quarters.”