Lady Whalers Lose as State Playoffs Are Set To Begin

Katie Kneeland is boxed out by Audrey Bilello of Mt. Sinai in the Lady Mustangs' 69-55 win over Pierson in the Suffolk County A/B/C/D final on Friday at Walt Whitman High School. Craig Macnaughton photos

Going into Friday, the last time the Pierson/Bridgehampton girls basketball team had lost a game was three weeks before Christmas. For fans of the Lady Whalers, this year’s team has been a gift that keeps on giving.

After starting the season with three consecutive non-league losses, and with their star senior on the bench with a wrist injury, the Lady Whalers came together and rattled off 19 straight victories, won a League VI championship and a pair of postseason games against worthy opponents.

The sting of defeat had become a distant memory, dating back to December 5 to be exact, when Pierson lost to Harborfields, 54-34.

But that all changed Friday at Walt Whitman High School, where the Class A Champion Mt. Sinai Lady Mustangs snapped Pierson’s 19-game winning streak with a 69-55 victory in the Suffolk County A/B/C/D title game, which brought an end to Pierson’s charge through the overall county tournament.

Pierson head coach Kevin Barron encouraging his team as they made a second-half charge against Mt. Sinai, which was a heavy favorite to win Friday’s game.

Mt. Sinai will play Longwood, the Class AA champion, on Wednesday, February 27, back at Walt Whitman at 4:30 p.m. to determine the top team in Suffolk County.

The Lady Whalers, meanwhile, will begin preparations for the state Class C playoffs, starting with a Southeast Regional Final on Saturday, March 9, most likely at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Their opponent will come from either Section I (Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties) or Section IX (Orange, Sullivan and Ulster), where defending state-champion Millbrook looms large as the top-ranked Class C team in the state by New York sportswriters.

Pierson, largely as a result of its most recent success, is ranked number 12.

“There’s no way you’re going to see competition like this upstate,” Pierson head coach Kevin Barron said on Friday about Mt. Sinai, which will continue along in the state Class A playoffs regardless of Wednesday’s outcome in the overall county championship game. “They’re a good team.”

Pierson struggled mightily in the first half and committed a long series of turnovers that led to a 13-point halftime advantage for the Lady Mustangs.

The lead ballooned to 17 with under four minutes remaining in the third quarter after Mt. Sinai’s dynamic senior guard, Gabby Sartori, who led all scorers with 32 points, completed a three-point play.

But then the tide began to turn in favor of the Lady Whalers.

“We started to get the ball up the middle more and pacing our way up the court, which is what I wanted,” Barron said about beating the Lady Mustangs’ full-court press.

Chastin Giles pushes the ball up court with Katie Kneeland trailing close behind.

Katie Kneeland, who led Pierson with 20 points just two days after scoring the 1,000th point of her career in a win over Mattituck, scored five points in a 12-0 run that also included baskets by Chastin Giles, Celia Barranco and Aziza El.

The Lady Whalers kept up the pressure and Kneeland hit three straight free throws to pull her team within three, 54-51, with 6:10 left in the game.

But that was where the run came to an end. Riding the hot hand of Sartori, and with major contributions from senior Brooke Cergol down the stretch, the Lady Mustangs pulled away one last time and closed out another victory.

“We could have won this game, but we started out slow,” Barranco said afterward. “But I think we played an amazing game against them. It was very intense.”

After going from the regular season right into a busy and successful Suffolk County tournament, Barranco and her teammates were looking forward to taking the weekend off and getting back to work on Monday, now with two weeks to prepare for the state regional final.

“I think this was our best game out of the past three in this tournament,” Barron said on Friday. “We always play up to the competition.”

And next up is the defending state champion. The task doesn’t get much taller than that.

Pierson assistant coach George Kneeland and his daughter, Katie, encourage the Lady Whalers’ bench on Friday.