MIDDLETOWN — As Amy Poffenbarger talked about her team’s defense in Middletown’s locker room, the game plan for Wednesday’s Class 2A Region II final remained scribbled out on a dry-erase board in front of her.
Four words, underlined three times, sat above above a series of numbered lists that covered the Xs and Os of the basketball game: champions consistently play well.
Middletown’s offense sputtered quite often Wednesday, particularly in the first quarter, when the Knights committed eight turnovers. But strong defense was a constant, from Kate Pusey and Saylor Poffenbarger altering shots around the rim to Jade Catlin and Meghan Shipley hounding Oakdale’s guards.
The way the Knights see it, they know their defense can carry them during offensive ruts and that shots will eventually fall if they show patience. That’s why Amy Poffenbarger referred to those four words above her game plan after the Knights pulled away from the Bears in the fourth quarter, winning 60-39 for their second straight region title.
“We believe we are champions, and we have to consistently play well because we’re getting everybody’s best shot,” the Middletown coach said. “When we play really good on defense, we know offense is going to come because our defense creates the offense.”
That became most apparent at the start of fourth quarter, with Middletown clinging to a 38-31 lead. Catlin jumpstarted the Knights’ transition game by making steals in the backcourt on consecutive possessions, leading to a three-point play from Saylor Poffenbarger and a driving layup from Shipley. Overall, Middletown (24-1), which will play in the state quarterfinals on Friday against an opponent yet to be determined, scored the first 11 points of the quarter, and nine came off the fast break.
Catlin and Shipley each scored nine points.
Amy Poffenbarger said Jade Catlin relished the opportunity to defend of one Oakdale’s quickest guards in Sam Foster, who scored just three fourth-quarter points.
“I knew we needed the energy, so I went and gave it my all on defense so that everyone would be on the same page energy-wise,” Catlin said. “One person just brings energy, and the rest just follow. That was just my mindset: bring the energy.”
Collectively, the Knights remained strong on the defensive end even though Saylor Poffenbarger, who finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six blocked shots, picked up her fourth foul with 5 minutes, 30 seconds left and sat out much of the fourth quarter. Oakdale (21-4) did not make a field goal in the fourth quarter until Sami Hardesty hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:20 left.
And while Catlin gave the Knights a jolt of energy late, Pusey played a big role in keeping the Knights’ collective heads above water in the first quarter. Oakdale succeeded in breaking Middletown’s full-court pressure, often leaving Pusey alone in the paint and left to defend a Bears player breaking free toward the basket. Often enough, one look at the 6-foot-1 Pusey, Amy Poffenbarger pointed out, made Oakdale players think twice about attacking the basket and settle for pull-up jumpers instead.
Pusey enjoys the challenge of being the last line of defense.
“I actually do because I’m one of the biggest people on the court, and I like being back there,” said Pusey, who had three rebounds and two blocked shots. “It’s my space, and my job is to make sure no one comes in the paint like that.”
Pusey’s ability to protect the paint allows Poffenbarger to roam around the court, get into the passing lanes and even guard the perimeter. On one of Poffenbarger’s blocked shots, she darted out to swat a 3-pointer by Nikki Etchison.
In addition to Pusey’s defense, Melanie Pick and Caitlin Woelkers contributed some strong help defense around the paint for a Middletown team that hasn’t allowed an opponent to score 50 points since dropping their season opener to Frederick.
“It gives us all the confidence to be able to [move around the court] knowing we are going to have people backing us,” Saylor Poffenbarger said. “That’s huge to playing a very successful defense, is knowing that the next line is right there in help-side defense.”
An Oakdale team known for playing strong, physical defense stayed in contention for three quarters thanks in large part to exerting their physicality on offense, eventually starting to absorb contact in the second quarter to get to the free-throw line. The Bears went 19-for-23 from the line.
Aubrey Austin collected 11 points, six rebounds and four steals for Oakdale, which won 76 games over the past four years and will lose eight seniors to graduation.
“I’m very proud of the girls,” Bears coach Rob Healy said. “It was a great season.
“Credit to Middletown because we had it close there, and they made buckets.”