JOHNSTON — You know things are looking up when the opposing coach pulls his starters – with 1:25 left in the first half!
Yes, Johnston head coach Dan Mazzulla did reinsert his starting group for the second half. By that point, though, it didn’t matter. Tolman was still up big and still playing tenacious defense, the latter the major reason why the Tigers handed the Panthers their first league loss on Tuesday night, 45-33.
The final numbers reveal just how unyielding Tolman was in holding Johnston to a season low in points. Head coach Tammy Drape’s club turned the Panthers over 23 times while limiting Johnston to 14-for-54 shooting. Alaina DeNoncour, Johnston’s towering center, finished with 15 points, a total well below her season average. That was due in large part to the 1-on-1 play of Tolman senior Jenna Ayala along with several of the guards who would pinch down and double DeNoncour when Drape ordered such a defense.
“When you keep (DeNoncour) to 15 points, you have a shot to win,” said Drape after the Tigers earned their third straight win to improve to 3-1 in Division II-North. “Defense is where we start and is what we base everything around.”
Said Mazzulla, “(Tolman) took away our inside game, which is our bread-and-butter. That said, we did throw the ball all over the place. They played well and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but it was like we were non-existent tonight.”
Jazmine Almeida led Tolman with 15 points while Janelle DeBarros helped out in the scoring department with 10. Besides applying tough ‘D’ on DeNoncour, Ayala aided the Tigers’ cause with nine points. Mallory Moniz provided some toughness off the bench with two points and eight rebounds.
While the defense was a constant throughout 32 minutes, Tolman’s offense went through stretches of strong play followed by periods of deep lulls. The Tigers opened the contest hitting just one of seven shots, all of the misses coming on jump shots that had Drape rolling her eyes. Once Tolman started to adhere to Drape’s wishes of swinging the ball around, better scoring chances arose. With Almeida directing traffic and Crystal Figueroa (five points) and DeBarros splashing in shots, the Tigers closed the first half on a 23-8 surge to take a commanding 32-16 lead into the break.
“If you’re patient, you’ll get open looks,” Drape said.
One thing that came across loud and clear Tuesday night was just how unselfish this Tolman squad is, particularly the starters. Almeida became the last member of the first five to have a basket next to her name when she hit a floater midway through the first half. The point guard would go on to top the Tigers in points.
“I was very impressed with what I saw from them in the first half,” praised Drape.
The second half saw Tolman struggle mightily on offense as the visitors went close to five minutes without putting up a point. The defense remained in high gear as Johnston managed to gain just one point on Tolman during that stretch.
“We showed that we could shoot in the first half,” said Drape. “In the second half we wanted to drive and get some dump-ins to Jenna. It’s a work in progress.”
Tolman spent much of the second half milking its double digit lead as a late surge by Johnston (3-1) allowed the Panthers to make the final score somewhat respectable. The Tigers will take a break from league play for next week’s holiday tournament at Smithfield High School. No doubt one of the things Drape will be looking to work on in the Sentinels’ gym is stretching out the rotation. The Tigers relied mainly on six girls against the Panthers.
“I really want to get some more kids involved,” said Drape. “We’re trying to get more subs in there. When you lose three starters (from last year’s playoff squad), it’s a process.”