By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
The Rootstown girls basketball team’s pressure defense is unrelenting.
It is frenetic.
And it comes in waves.
The Rovers featured a nine-player rotation on Wednesday, with all nine creating havoc on ball-handlers to set the tone for what became a thrilling 49-45 victory over the visiting Field Falcons in the season opener for both teams.
The Falcons authored a 17-0 flurry of a run in the fourth quarter that turned a 20-point deficit to a one-possession game with a minute to play, but the Rovers survived the comeback attempt and their defensive pressure remained the calling card in the triumph.
It marks the fifth consecutive year that the Rovers have started the season with a win over the Falcons.
“Our defensive pressure is something we have been working on since the summer,” Rootstown head coach Joe Leonard said. “We have players that allow us to play physical inside, but we also have a lot of track and cross country runners and soccer players, who are quick, and we want to use both to our advantage. The pressure defense, that is the type of basketball we want to play. Our conditioning is not where I want it to be yet, but we will keep getting better and tonight, I thought our pressure was great.”
In total, Rootstown forced Field into 23 turnovers, with 15 of those coming in the first half. The Rovers picked up the Falcons with full-court pressure and Field was rarely able to set up any kind of comfortable half court offense, allowing the Rovers to jump out to a 17-11 lead after the first quarter and claim a 32-18 advantage by halftime.
On top of the turnovers, the Falcons shot only 7-of-24 (29 percent) from the field in the opening 16 minutes — the result of rushed offensive opportunities.
“I think, early on, a lot of our struggles were self-inflicted,” Field head coach John Misenko said. “Too often, we would make our pass and then leave our teammate in a tough position. We weren’t helping ourselves.”
Up 14 at halftime, Leonard said he told his team to be ready.
“We knew a run from Field was coming. They are too good of a team,” the Rovers’ second-year coach said.
When the Falcons opened the third quarter on a 10-2 run, taking advantage of newfound offensive freedom against a two-three zone that Rootstown was forced into because of foul trouble, which cut their deficit to 34-28 1:54 on the clock, it appeared to be the exact run Leonard had prepared his team for.
However, there were still two more definitive runs left in the game.
One for Rootstown.
One for Field.
Just when it seemed that the Falcons had captured the momentum needed to pull closer, through its third-quarter burst, the Rovers exploded to start the fourth quarter.
Rootstown scored the quarter’s first 10 points to turn a 38-28 lead after three quarters into a sizable 48-28 lead with 4:34 left.
Once again, the Rovers relied on their defense during the lead extension, flipping costly Field turnovers into easy transition layups.
Then, just like that, the Falcons came alive.
A rally of points sparked by Delilah Rahe and Ally Harlin, along with a bucket from Mckayla Miller was then bookended by a 3-pointer from Abby Harlin and a free throw by Ally Harlin that made the score 48-45 with 1 minute left.
The last minute was filled with steal attempts, then fouls for the Falcons, who never got an offensive possession that would have allowed for a chance to tie the score.
“I thought we had a couple of missed opportunities throughout the course of the game that could have made a difference later, but I am extremely proud of how our girls battled through so much adversity,” Misenko said. “We had a lot to deal with ourselves, some injuries, not to mention that Rootstown is a really good team. We didn’t have the outcome we wanted tonight, but I think we showed ourselves what we are capable of during that fourth-quarter run.”
Rootstown’s offense was balanced, with eight different scorers. Colbie Curall and Brooklynn McIntyre led the team with 11 points each, while Nadia Lough finished with nine points and 11 rebounds. Also, Rootstown’s offense, which kept the ball and players moving, resulted in six players having at least two assists each (Curall, Addy Germann, Abby White, Kelsey Bittecuffer, Melanie Plecko and Porter Smith).
Field was led offensively by Rahe’s 20 points. The junior standout also pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. Ally Harlin also reached double-digits with 14 points for the Falcons, who out-rebounded Rootstown 37-22 in the loss.