Wanting to prove that the performance they produced at Westfield three weeks ago was the exception rather than the norm, the Dayton Bulldogs saw a great challenge ahead of them.
They had the opportunity not only to make amends for the 27-point loss they were dealt by the home team Blue Devils that Jan. 10 evening, but to also knock off the only undefeated girls’ basketball team remaining in UnionCounty.
Dayton did just that Thursday, coming back in the fourth quarter to stun 15-0 Westfield by a 46-39 score in Union County Conference-Mountain Division play in Springfield.
In the fourth quarter, Westfield scored exactly the same number of points as previous losses it had – zero.
In their first division game, Westfield was in control from the opening tip to the final buzzer, winning 57-30.
Down by nine after the first eight minutes, it might have appeared at that time that Dayton – playing this time in its home gym in Springfield – might be in for another long night.
According to veteran head coach Dave Rennie, all the Bulldogs really had to do was settle down.
“I could sense that once the girls scored their first couple of baskets in the second quarter that they gained their confidence and felt that they could compete,” Rennie said.
Dayton got back in the game by outscoring Westfield by 10 points in the second quarter to take a one-point lead at intermission.
“The key was taking care of the ball against their pressure,” Rennie said. “They go full court press, have a half court trap and go man-to-man at times, so they throw so many looks.”
Down by four going into the fourth quarter, Dayton not only was able to slowly-but-surely storm past Westfield, but the Bulldogs also managed to shut out the undefeated Blue Devils the entire eight-minute stanza.
Westfield, previously, did not have a quarter this year where it did not score at least one point.
Dayton won the all-important fourth quarter by an 11-0 count.
“Our goal was to make sure we challenged their shooters and we tried to not give them any open looks,” Rennie said.
Westfield’s dynamic junior tandem of three-year varsity starters Lillian Scott and Jacqueline Knapp – both closing in on 1,000 career points – had 15 and eight points respectively through the first three quarters to help put the Blue Devils ahead by a 39-35 count after the first 24 minutes.
“It (Westfield not scoring in the fourth quarter) was just one of those things,” Rennie said. “Their shots were not falling from the perimeter and some rattled out. It was critically important for us to do a good job of rebounding and not give them too many second chances.”
Junior center Elyssa Pollack grabbed seven rebounds and also led Dayton with 14 points, while diminutive senior guard Gianni Izzi paced the Bulldogs with 11 boards, in addition to filling the hoop for 10 points.
“Scott and Knapp had their opportunities (in the fourth quarter),” Rennie said. “We didn’t do anything special defensively.
“I told our kids to just know where No. 20 (Scott) and No. 2 (Knapp) were at all times and where Olivia Luzzi (No. 22, who finished with six points) was as well. We tried to make them rush their shots.”
To take a positive from a negative, sometimes teams prepare harder and are more motivated against an opponent after getting beaten soundly by them the first time.
“If there’s a silver lining in losing to quality teams it’s that it prepares you for the next time they come around,” Rennie said.
With the victory, Dayton won for the fourth time in its past five games and improved to 9-5 overall and 7-4 in the Mountain Division, good for third place at the moment.
Dayton closes out this week’s schedule Friday night at 7 with a conference-crossover home game against Governor Livingston. The Highlanders are 8-9 and on a three-game losing streak.
Westfield fell to 15-1 overall and 10-1 in the Mountain Division.
On Saturday the top two teams in the Mountain Division will clash for the second and final time in division play and for the third time this season when Westfield visits New Providence at 1 p.m.
New Providence won at Hillside 58-51 Thursday to improve to 11-4 overall and 8-1 in the Mountain Division. It was the fifth straight win for the Pioneers since they last loss to Westfield.
Westfield first defeated New Providence 57-48 on Dec. 30 in the Len Sepanak Tournament final at Ridge. The Blue Devils then downed the Pioneers 43-34 at home on Jan. 16 in the first of their two division clashes.
Prior to dropping its first game to Dayton, Westfield had won 13 of its first 15 games by double digits. The only two wins the Blue Devils had that weren’t by at least 10 points were the two against the Pioneers, both of them coming by exactly nine points.
New Providence is the only team to defeat Roselle Catholic (14-1) so far, pinning a 53-51 home win on the Lions Jan. 14, so Saturday’s Westfield-New Providence clash will go a long way toward determining the top seeds for this year’s Union County Tournament, which will probably be seeded on Feb. 11. Union is 14-2, with its only losses coming to Roselle Catholic in Watchung Division play.
Saturday’s clash between Westfield and New Providence also takes on new meaning in the Mountain Division, with both teams at the top with just one division loss each. Both Westfield and New Providence are off Friday. The winner takes the lead for the division championship.
For Dayton, the Bulldogs did not want to lose to New Providence and Westfield back-to-back for a second time this season. Dayton began the season 5-1 and was then defeated by New Providence and Westfield in division play and then by conference-crossover rival Summit.
The Bulldogs then bounced back to win three straight – all division victories – before falling to New Providence again earlier this week.
“We played with a lot of energy and the players were pumped up,” Rennie said of Thursday’s performance vs. Westfield. “We wanted to show them that we weren’t the same team they went up against earlier.
“We wanted to make sure we gave them our best. The energy we had on the defensive end – getting on their shooters – maybe forced them to shoot quickly.”
The teams played two very close Mountain Division games last year, with Dayton winning 46-42 at home before Westfield won 50-49 at its place.
Rennie said that on Thursday night the Bulldogs trailed by only one point midway through the first quarter.
“We were right there with them and then – in typical Westfield fashion – they can hit so hard and so quick,” Rennie said. “They put together a stretch there that had us licking our wounds. All it took was a couple of turnovers, some fast break baskets and they went on a quick run.”
While Westfield was playing with confidence and probably thinking that it was to remain undefeated going into Saturday’s big division game at New Providence, Dayton had a different strategy.
“We just wanted to settle down and value every possession,” Rennie said. “We needed to take it one possession at a time, settle for a good shot and not give them any easy baskets.”
Rennie has led Dayton to sectional and division championships, had his Bulldogs play in group and UCT semifinals and has also coached a 2,000-plus point scorer in Jacqueline Kuczynski.
However, he said that this was the first time he ever coached the Bulldogs to a victory over a state-ranked team.
“All the pressure was on them,” Rennie said. “They were 15-0, ranked No. 1 in UnionCounty and No. 18 in the state.
“There was no pressure on us. We just wanted to prove to ourselves that we could be much more competitive against them.”
Pollack is Dayton’s second-leading scorer behind senior Nikki Athan and is the team’s leading rebounder. Izzi is the team’s third-leading scorer and leads the team in steals and is second in rebounding to Pollack and second in assists to Athan.
“Both played well,” Rennie said. “Gianna was all over the floor on defense, creating a lot of problems on the perimeter for Westfield. Any long rebounds she got her hands on.
“Elyssa did a lot of things well for us in the middle of our zone, protecting the basket. On the offense end, she helped break the press in the middle and was an option for our guards to pass the ball to. She picked up a couple of assists from that position.
“Both Gianna and Elyssa also hit some big free throws for us.”
Eight of Izzi’s points came from the foul line and six for Pollack.
“I don’t remember beating a 15-0 team before,” Rennie said. “There was a year when New Providence and Johnson were undefeated and then New Providence defeated Johnson and then they came to our place and we beat New Providence.”
NOTES: The 39th annual UCT is still a couple of weeks away.
The seeding meeting will take place either Feb. 11 or 12, with preliminary round games to be played at the higher seeds on Feb. 14 and/or 15.
Head coaches on the committee include Rennie, Westfield’s Joe Marino, Hillside’s Sjocquelyn Winstead and Union’s Justin Meyer.
The eight first round games – all at the higher seeds – are scheduled for Feb. 18, with the winners to move on to the quarterfinals on Feb. 21.
The quarterfinals lately have been held at Roselle Catholic and at Rahway.
The semifinals are set for Feb. 25 and the final for Feb 28 at Kean. The site of the semifinals may be determined at the seeding meeting.
The final has been at Kean the last three years, but on a Sunday. This time the final is back to being on a Friday night for the first time since 2010 at Roselle Catholic.