A challenging draw in their first tournament of the year was a bit of an eye-opener for the Niagara Rangers Under-19 girls basketball team at the Grimsby Grizzlies Invitational this weekend.
After winning an exciting opener 57-56 against the Burlington Force Saturday morning, the absence of some key players caught up to the Rangers and they dropped decisions to the Toronto Triple Threat and the Stratford Revolution.
In game one the Rangers fell behind 21-10 in the second quarter but clawed back with 13 unanswered points to go ahead 23-21 with 48 seconds remaining in the half. It might have stayed that way had the Force not dropped a three-pointer with under 10 seconds to play to go into the break with a one-point lead.
In the second half, point guard Mikayla Wallace seemed to take the entire team on her shoulders, exerting control at both ends of the court. Her constant driving to the Burlington basket resulted in a 38-38 tie at the end of the third.
The lead shifted back and forth between the teams in the fourth quarter. With 2:21 left in the game, the Rangers went up 52-49 on the strength of some clutch shooting from Kyla Pylypiw. But they saw that lead slip away 32 seconds later when the Force went ahead 53-52.
Julia Diemer then dropped a crucial, much-needed three for the Rangers that was answered by a similar shot by Burlington. But Wallace scored on a lay-up with 34 seconds left to regain the lead for Niagara.
The Rangers had a chance to put the icing on the cake after a missed shot by Burlington, but they turned the ball over under the Force basket.
With seven seconds remaining, coach Shawn Pylypiw called a timeout for his team to set a defensive strategy. Whatever he told them worked, as Ava Froese pulled down a rebound on a missed shot, passed the ball to Wallace, and the Rangers dribbled out the clock for the 57-56 victory.
Wallace finished with 23 points, including a number of them coming after she jammed her finger hard in the second half. Kyla Pylypiw added 13 and Froese chipped in 10, drawing a number of fouls under the Burlington board.
“It was a hard-fought game,” said coach Pylypiw following the win. “We had never played the Burlington Force before, but they have always played at a higher level. I felt that we matched pretty well against this team and we did a lot of great things out there. To see our team stand toe to toe with them goes to show what kind of grit and grind the girls are made of.”
Perhaps it was the hard-fought nature of that first game, or the absence of one of the team’s starters and leaders, Tiana Hicks, that caught up to them in their second tournament game Saturday, and their Sunday contest, both disappointing losses.
The Toronto Triple Threat, the eventual tournament winner, handed the Rangers their first loss of the season Saturday afternoon.
“It was frustrating as a coach,” said Pylypiw, “and frustration by the team. It was one of those gut-check moments where we realized that there is a lot more work to put forward to build toward winning a championship by the end of the season.”
Sunday’s loss to the Stratford Revolution was equally one-sided, knocking the Rangers out- of a chance to play a fourth game for at least a bronze medal.
“It was a frustrating way to end the weekend,” said a disappointed Pylypiw. “Both of those losses were really tough to take.”