By Dan Guttenplan
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton took time to honor, in his words, “the finest basketball team Pentucket has produced in its proud 50-plus-year history” last evening before the girls basketball team’s home-opener.
Last year’s Division 3 state-champion girls team gathered for a pregame ceremony that concluded with the unveiling of a green banner recognizing last year’s accomplishment. The 2011-2012 team is the lone Pentucket basketball squad to earn a state championship.
All four graduates from last year’s team — Sarah Higgins, Leigh McNamara, Molly McDonough and Tori Lane — returned for the ceremony. Thornton introduced the former players first, before calling the names of the returning state-champions. Each player received a bouquet of flowers from head coach John McNamara.
After the ceremony, this year’s team returned to business as usual, pushing to 2-0 with a 57-35 win over North Reading. With returning standouts like Coley Viselli, Alex Moore, Tess Nogueira, Kelsi McNamara and McKenna Kilian leading the way, the Sachems at times look strikingly similar to the team that went all the way to the Worcester DCU Center last winter.
The Sachems will press full-court again this season, as has been the case in each of McNamara’s six seasons as coach. Last night, the team forced 39 turnovers in a 32-minute game. The Sachems forced their first five turnovers before North Reading attempted a shot, and they forced eight before North Reading recorded its first basket.
Still, there were momentary lapses in the first half, and the Sachems escaped with only a 20-17 lead.
“We told the girls, after the ceremony is done, that’s it,” McNamara said. “They had to be ready to go. We didn’t do a good job of it in the first half. I think we were distracted, but we did a better job in the second half.”
The Sachems put the game away in the third quarter when they outscored North Reading 22-4 in the first six minutes, stretching the lead to 42-21.
All of the usual suspects had big nights for Pentucket. McNamara, a sophomore who broke out in the state tournament last winter, had 13 points and four steals. Moore, a senior captain, tallied 11 points, four rebounds and five steals. Nogueira, also a senior captain, battled foul trouble to log six points and three rebounds. Viselli, the third senior captain, had five points, six rebounds, four assists and seven steals.
Perhaps one unexpected surprise came in the form of sophomore McKenna Kilian. For the first time in her career, she led the Sachems in scoring with 14 points. She also had five rebounds and three steals.
Coach McNamara emptied his bench throughout the evening, giving all 15 players on the roster playing time. Several sophomores and freshmen logged minutes in the first half when the game was still close.
“They’ve been working hard in practice,” McNamara said. “I think they deserve minutes. There’s only 15 players on the team, so making the team is difficult to do. They’ve earned it, and they’ll get a chance to get some varsity experience.”
The Sachems defense appears to be slightly ahead of the offense early in the season. When told that his team forced 39 turnovers last evening, McNamara said it felt like his team committed just as many.
“We spend more than half our practice time working on defense,” McNamara said. “That’s what the young kids have to learn. It takes time. All five have to be on the same page, or we have breakdowns.”
McNamara said he’s run many drills in practice to teach his full-court press concept.
“We do walk-throughs,” McNamara said. “We do half-court situations. I’ll have them hold the ball after each pass, and I’ll let everyone adjust so they’re in the right position.”