WINSTED – It wasn’t much on elegance and execution carrying with it all the rust, nerves and newness that so often comes with opening night. But, if Northwestern Regional and Thomaston’s battle Tuesday night was an indication of the type of drama we’re going to see during the Berkshire League girls basketball season it is going to be a wildly entertaining ride.
Morgan Plitt’s two flawless foul shots with 11.6 seconds remaining nullified Payton Mozelak’s potential game-winning three-pointer from the top of the key with 40 seconds left rallying the Highlanders to a 36-35 victory. But there was more before and some after.
Northwestern had come down and missed two shots only to gather both rebounds with Plitt finally her getting fouled. Thomaston still had a chance only to see Nicole Decker smothered on an attempted drive to the basket and her shot barely get air born as time ran out.
The ending was magnified by who was producing it. This was a marquee first game matchup. The defending Class S state champion and three-time defending BL champion Bears who hadn’t lost a regular season BL game in three seasons against a hot pick to take honors this season, coach Fred Williams’ Highlanders.
It wasn’t vintage basketball and neither coach Williams nor Thomaston’s Brian Mozelak will tell you different. The two teams struggled to familiarize themselves with the bottom of the net, the Highlanders matching the outdoor temperatures (14-for-59, 23 percent) including a bone-chilling 0-for17 third quarter while the Bears were only slightly better (14-49, 29 percent) including 2-for-12 in the fourth quarter.
Throw in a fair share of turnovers and you had every bit an early December first-game vibe. Yet, there were signs that wasn’t and won’t be the norm. Both defenses took no prisoners, clogging lanes, getting in the face, harassing often.
“I think maybe the defenses had a lot to do with why neither team shot well,” said Williams.
And there were some step-up performances. Northwestern sophomore Maddie Topa, like mostly everybody found the basket often unfriendly. Topa, however, may be the league’s best all-around player and she did what big-time players do, come up big when the time comes.
Topa (15 points) entered the fourth quarter with just six points then flipped the switch. With the Highlanders trailing, 29-23, with just under seven minutes left after scoring just four points in the half, Topa proceeded to drive to the basket, hit a foul shot, turn a steal into a basket and then after the two teams traded two points each, added another drive and two more free throws.
Her nine points turned the game and gave Northwestern a 34-32 lead, setting the stage for the ending.
“I knew I wasn’t playing my best and had to step it up,” said Topa.
Plitt had scored just one basket before being fouled at the end of the game. She was flat out undeterred at the line. Swish, swish and game.
“In practice we do this all the time specifically practicing for this moment,” said Plitt. “I said, just like practice.”
Decker, hounded all night, scored 12 for the Bears including two key foul shots for a 32-30 lead with three minutes left. Ava Harkness scrapped for nine points.
The Highlanders finished happy, the Bears unhappy. But neither coach was going to make anything more of the result than it was just the first game.
“The season is not dictated by one game,” said Williams. “It’s nice to win it but I’m not on Cloud 9. We have major challenges ahead. “
“I had two speeches prepared,” said Mozelak who replaces Bob McMahon at the helm. “It’s the first game of the season and if we win don’t get to high. Or if we lose don’t get to low. Remember how this feels. It’s the first game, not the last game. “
Intriguing opener that kept the edge of the seats warm. And it’s just December. It’s going to be good.