VERONA – By her own admission, New Hartford eighth-grade phenom Kaia Henderson had a rough shooting day.
But elite scorers usually find a way to put the ball in the hoop when it matters most, and Henderson did just that, scoring seven points down the stretch to help the Spartans hold off Vernon-Verona-Sherrill 45-39 in Tuesday’s Tri Valley League game.
“Even though we were off shooting, we made them when we needed to,” Henderson said. “I told myself to keep shooting and eventually I’d make them.”
Henderson, who averages just under 25 points per game, finished with a game-high 23. Freshman guard Sophia Murray chipped in nine points, and center Abby Buchholz scored five, but was most valuable as a rebounder and defender for the Spartans (3-1, 5-3).
In a game dominated by underclassmen, the Red Devils (2-2, 5-6) were led by freshmen Morgan Brewer and Anna Rossi. Brewer scored 13 of her team-high 16 points in the second half, and Rossi had 13 points, including some clutch buckets to keep VVS close.
Aside from New Hartford’s strong finish, the other main reason the Spartans were able to pull out the victory was the defensive job they did on Red Devils star forward Alexa Kiser, who came into the game averaging 14 points per game.
The Spartans, led by Erica Sheaffer, Basia Mwantuali, and most notably, Buchholz, surrounded Kiser and made it tough for the lefty to get clean looks at the hoop and held the junior forward/center to five points and just one field goal.
“Kiser is a great player,” New Hartford head coach Mike Callan said. “We fronted her and had someone behind her. I think we frustrated her a bit tonight, but she’s a really good player. The whole game plan was to stop Kiser. We knew she’s capable of destroying us, so we did our job defensively.”
Helping New Hartford’s cause was Kiser fighting foul trouble throughout the entire game and having to sit out for extended minutes before fouling out with 5:05 remaining.
“We worked hard defensively and got on their shooters,” Henderson said. “We tried to take it to Kiser and got her into foul trouble.”
Leading the defensive charge was Buchholz. The junior consistently blocked or altered shots in the paint, while also doing a job on the boards.
“In our practices, we stressed defense and to not let her go to her left,” Buchholz said of Kiser. “We really focused on forcing her right and that helped.”
Neither team could find the shooting touch in the opening half. After Anna Rossi gave VVS a 2-0 lead in the first minute, New Hartford didn’t allow the Red Devils to score another field goal in taking a 10-5 advantage into the second quarter.
The Spartans extended its lead to nine points (21-12) at the break as both teams continued to struggle to make shots.
“We haven’t been good all season at coming back, but we knew if we could get some shots to drop we could get back into the game because our defense was playing well,” VVS head coach Randy Thomas said. “Anna and Morgan kept us in the game and in the third quarter we hit shots.”
Things heated up in a wild third quarter. Henderson began the quarter with a baseline 3-pointer to give the Spartans their biggest lead of the game at 24-12. The Red Devils responded with a quick 6-0 run as Brewer hit two hoops inside and Rossi scored on a nice drive to cut the deficit in half.
Henderson made one of two free throws to stop the run, but an 11-3 burst, capped by back-to-back 3-pointers by Rossi and Brewer gave the Red Devils their first lead (29-28) since the opening basket of the game.
“It was a great effort from our team to come back,” Brewer said. “Last year we were 2-9 at this point and it shows home much we’ve grown. We just need to make some more shots.”
A pair of free throws by Henderson with seven seconds remaining gave the Spartans a one-point lead after three quarters.
Kiser found other ways to make a mark and helped VVS regain the lead by grabbing a defensive rebound, dribbling to near half court and threading a nice pass to Emily Rossi, who laid in the go-ahead bucket early in the fourth.
The teams traded points and were tied at 34 before Sheaffer’s free throw gave the Spartans the lead at 35-34.
For over three quarters, Henderson couldn’t find the range from deep and had several bad misses, but drove to the hoop for tough bucket to give New Hartford a 37-34 lead.
Brewer stepped up and knotted the game with a clutch 3-pointer with 3:14 remaining. Henderson responded by driving the length of the court for the go-ahead hoop. Less than a minute later, she hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to turn give the Spartans a 42-37 lead with just 1:45 remaining.
The Spartans closed it out in the final 30 seconds as Henderson found Murray, who drilled a 3-pointer from the corner to cement the victory.
“Offensively we got our shots but couldn’t make anything,” Callan said. “Kaia is never like that. We got down by a point, but we finished strong.”
The Red Devils have a very young team and are trending up after a few rough seasons. Their ability to hang tough with the Spartans, especially with Kiser in foul trouble all game, is another positive for VVS.
“I think when she has an off game everyone else has to step up,” Brewer said. “Towards the end of the game we definitely stepped up, but it wasn’t enough.”
The Red Devils did the job defensively on Henderson and the Spartans. It just came down to not making enough shots in the first half that left them in a big hole.
“Our goal is to keep opponents to 50 points or under,” Thomas said. “If you told me we’d hold New Hartford to 45 points, I would’ve bet 10 to 1 that we’d win that game. We knew Kaia was going to get her 20 something, but we did a good job forcing tough shots all game. We were in it, but they made more shots at the end.”
New Hartford has now won four of its past five games. The Spartans don’t have a single senior on its roster, and Buchholz knows they are going to have their share of growing pains.
“It’s important for me to help everyone focus,” Buchholz said. “Especially in the games, we are so young, that we can lose focus.”
New Hartford 45, VVS 39
NH 10 11 9 15—45
VVS 5 7 17 10—39
New Hartford (3-1, 5-3): Kaia Henderson 7-7 23; Sophia Murray 4-0 9; Abby Buchholz 2-0 5; Basia Mwantuali 2-0 4; Kristen Sellars 1-0 3; Erica Sheaffer 0-1 1. Totals: 16-8-45. 3-Pointers: 5 (Henderson 2, Murray, Sellars, Buchholz).
VVS (2-2, 5-6): Morgan Brewer 6-2 16; Anna Rossi 6-0 13; Alexa Kiser 1-3 5; McKenna Berry 1-0 2; Emily Rossi 1-0 2; Emily D’Agostino 0-1 1. Totals: 15-6-39. 3-Pointers: 3 (Brewer 2, A. Rossi).