READING, Mass. -- Unable to solve archrival Stoneham and its variety of presses and zones through the first 16 minutes of play, the Reading girls basketball team found itself challenging one another in the locker room at halftime, to step it up on their own defensive end.
Clearly, the message didn't fall upon deaf ears. The No. 10 Rockets finished the third quarter on a 17-2 run and cruised from there, never letting the lead cut to single-digits again as they downed the No. 15 Spartans, 69-56, to clinch the Middlesex League title outright after splitting it three ways a season ago.
Reading improved to 19-1, and swept the season series with the Spartans in this last year of a one-division Middlesex (the league splits into Large and Small divisions next season with the arrivals of Arlington and Wilmington). Stoneham fell to 16-2.
"At halftime, we talked about defense," said senior forward Carlene Kluge, who ended up with 13 points and five rebounds on Senior Night. "Our defense was not what we wanted it to be in the first half, so in the second half we picked it up. We got the steals, and made it more of a running game, so that was good."
Holding a 30-26 lead at the break and struggling with the many looks Stoneham head coach Angela Billings threw at them -- from a full-court man-to-man press, sideline traps and various 2-3 and 1-3-1 looks -- the Rockets looked to speed things up in the third quarter. Coupled with their size advantage, boasting at least four starters taller than 5-foot-8, it was a tough dosage to handle.
Five-foot-10 sophomore guard Olivia Healy (22 points, 12 rebounds, five steals) was at the forefront of the replenished attack, deflecting entry passes on the wing to start a series of fast breaks, and push the ball in transition to try and draw three-point plays. Reading outscored Stoneham 23-14 in the third to seize the lead for good, but it was the play of Healy and sophomore Morgan O'Brien (18 points) over the final two minutes that stretched the lead into the teens.
First, Healy swiped an entry pass at the three-point line, slipped by Stoneham point guard Ariana Tuccelli (11 points, five assists, five steals) and laid it in easily on a breakaway. The next trip down, she pulled up on the left wing for a three-pointer, holding her follow-through as the ball sank.
O'Brien then finished it out with 22 seconds left in the quarter, rebounding her own errant three-pointer and drawing a foul on the way up to a successful put-back, and then converting the free throw for a 53-40 lead headed into the final stanza.
Overall for the second half, the Rockets shot better than 41 percent from the field, and were 15 of 20 from the free throw line.
"Third quarter, our defense picked it up," Reading head coach Kim Penney said. "I thought our denial defense on the wing was much better. (We were) much more aggressive in the lanes, we got some steals."
When asked what sparked her in that third quarter, Healy said, "Wanting it so much. Wednesday we had off, but Thursday we had a great practice. It was all defense, we didn't take it easy, and it was like a spark under all of us. We just went. We just kept going."
As well as the Rockets can run, the first half showcased their ability to gun, too. They were 6 of 10 on three-pointers in the first half, including three from O'Brien, and went on an 8-0 run late in the second quarter to take a four-point halftime lead.
Senior center Melissa DalPozzo also had 11 points for Reading, while senior Alison Brennan also reached double-figures for Stoneham with 10 points.
"I told them I could not have asked for a better effort tonight," Billings said. "I mean, Reading shot lights out, without a doubt. You know, we got into foul trouble, that didn't help, but I thought our effort was outstanding."