McLean girls basketball falls to Westfield in season opener

Highlanders go cold in second half, fall short of victory in first game of season

Final score: 47-44

The McLean Highlanders girls varsity basketball team took on the Westfield Bulldogs on McLean’s home court to get their 2021-22 winter season started, but ultimately lost in a close game. The match was the inaugural game of the squad’s 23-game season, which spans from late November to early February.

The team’s season opener marks the beginning of the winter sports season, where indoor sports will dominate the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) networks for the foreseeable future. The girls used multiple scrimmages as well as early tryouts and practices to be in the best shape possible for their first game.

“Our focus as a team has always been focused on defense first,” head coach Jen Sobota said. “We spent a lot of time working on defense and being able to get steals so that we can get some transition baskets.”

McLean came into the game with a relatively new look, with the roster full of younger players instead of the typical group of mostly seniors.

“Mia [Fitzgerald] is our lone senior this year. She’s been [a starter] for four years,” Sobota said. “I’m really excited that she has a group around her that is capable of getting [to districts].”

McLean got off to a strong start, finishing the first quarter with a 13-7 lead. Junior guard Kara Bremser led the charge with multiple baskets early in the game. At one point in the quarter, McLean held an 11-1 lead, but multiple turnovers by the girls in red and white allowed the Bulldogs to get right back into the fight.

McLean’s tenacious defense was on display in the beginning of the second quarter, with multiple strong contests at the rim resulting in Westfield missing shots. The home team’s offense had gone cold, though, without a single made basket through three minutes of the quarter. Star guard Mia Fitzgerald broke the cold spell with an and-1 play to put the Highlanders up by 2. Play was halted in the middle of the second quarter due to a technical foul called on Westfield’s coach, with the referee citing cursing directed towards the referee.

“You missed three calls, of course she’s going to be irritable,” an unknown Westfield fan shouted from the peanut gallery.

McLean rounded out the first half with a strong defensive stand to keep the score at 27-17 in favor of the Highlanders. Bremser’s and Fitzgerald’s strong performances kept up, and help from players like junior Alden Wagner, freshman Vilte Kacerauskaite and sophomore Ava Stewart gave the Highlanders firm control of the game going into the second half.

In an uber-physical third quarter which seemed to have more bodies hitting the floor than baskets going through the hoop, McLean dominated the time of possession on offense en route to a 35-26 lead at the quarter break. The McLean student section’s raucous ground-pounding seemed to get in the heads of the Westfield players, with many missed free throws in the quarter.

Westfield took control of the game in the beginning of the final frame, getting physical in the paint to convert easy buckets at the rim. After more than two minutes, McLean was still looking for their first basket of the quarter while the Bulldogs had shrunk the deficit to four points, 35-31.

Minor mistakes like travels and unnecessary passes which turned into turnovers plagued the Highlanders throughout the game. While irritating, such mistakes are symptomatic of a team which has not had much time to gel. As the season goes on, those types of issues will begin to dissipate.

Westfield capped off an 11-2 run with a three-pointer in transition, tying the game at 37 apiece as the clock ticked under four minutes to go in the game. Not long after the triple, an easy layup gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game. The Highlanders would not be denied, as Bremser drained another three-pointer to retake the lead. With less than three minutes remaining, it was anyone’s game to win.

McLean’s lead was gone as soon as it came. The Bulldogs followed up a layup with a prolonged possession, grabbing multiple offensive rebounds before eventually hitting a three to give the lead back to the visiting team, 44-41.

McLean was forced to start fouling in order to get the ball back after the free throws. Krikorian hit a huge three with 9 seconds to go to bring the score to 46-44 in favor of the Bulldogs, and from there McLean simply had to hope that Westfield would not make both of their free throws to put the game away.

The first part of their two-step prayer was answered, as the Westfield guard missed both of her free throws. In a disastrous turn for McLean, the shooter was able to recover her own rebound, sealing McLean’s fate. She converted one of two free throws, and McLean was not able to hit a hail-mary full court shot. Despite the early lead, McLean left with a three point loss to the visiting Bulldogs.

“I think that they played hard the entire time, which was really good,” assistant athletic director Tzeitzel Barcus said. “They just have a few minor details to work out, but they’re going to be a tough contender.”