MIDDLETOWN — They certainly weren’t used to this.
For the first quarter of Friday’s Class 2A West state quarterfinal, Middletown’s girls basketball players watched their Liberty counterparts do what the Knights have often done to their opponents: beat them up and down the floor in transition.
“At first, we were a little shocked because we haven’t really had that much competition this whole season,” Knights guard Meghan Shipley said Friday night. “It shook us up a little bit.”
A few tweaks in their defensive tactics helped settle the Knights down after the Lions took a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter. Then Middletown sought to give Liberty a taste of its own medicine.
“You have to kind of turn your anger towards them and take it at them the way they were doing it to us,” Shipley said after the Knights advanced to the state semifinals with a 70-46 victory. “We were here to win, and we know that they came here to win, too.”
Middletown (25-1), which will face Forest Park at Towson University’s SECU Arena at a time to be determined on March 13, scored the first 19 points of the second quarter to take the lead for good. During that spurt, the Knights’ fast break generated four baskets after the Lions (17-7) had scored as many baskets off transition in the first quarter.
Liberty had no issues passing through Middletown’s full-court press in the first quarter, allowing the Lions to dictate the pace of the game and get easy shots around the basket. Rachel Thiem led the way, finishing with 21 points and eight rebounds.
“They did not anticipate us being who we were, and then I think they realized in the second quarter we are definitely who they thought [we were], and they made an adjustment,” Liberty coach Barry Green said.
The adjustment? The Knights shelved their press and turned to a half-court zone defense, which in turn limited high percentage shots for the Lions, who scored just three second-quarter points.
“They started to get frustrated because we were putting on a lot of pressure,” said Shipley, who finished with 18 points, five assists and five steals. “We started to cause a lot of turnovers and get a bunch of steals, and you could see the game completely switch the other way around.”
Along with Shipley, Saylor Poffenbarger created instant offense for the Knights by stripping Lions players. Held scoreless in the first quarter after her usually effective 3-point shot wasn’t falling early in the game, Poffenbarger found several other ways to make an impact, finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds, 10 steals and three blocked shots.
Melanie Pick added eight rebounds and three steals, and Riley Nelson had four steals.
Poffenbarger, a UConn commit, spent much of the game looking for second-chance points by crashing the offensive boards or posting up on the low block and maneuvering around or through defenders. With that emphasis on being around the basket, she went 9-of-11 from the free-throw line.
“When she works from the inside to the outside and gets in the flow, [the outside shot becomes] a lot smoother,” Middletown coach Amy Poffenbarger said.
During Middletown’s 19-0 second quarter run, Saylor Poffenbarger also got her teammates involved, passing out of a double-team and finding Shipley for a back-door layup and then driving the lane and kicking the ball out to Bri Horman for a 3-pointer.
Poffenbarger even provided some entertainment for Green, using a crisp crossover dribble to shake a defender around the free-throw line and then hitting a fadeaway jumper. Even with his team down 27 points at the time, Green grinned and chuckled.
“I have been truly blessed to coach 19 years consecutively, and I will not be denied the opportunity to enjoy basketball as a purist,” Green said. “She puts in the work, and I can only respect kids who put in the work like that when that’s the result of putting in that kind of work. There’s nothing you can do but enjoy the beauty of it.”
Over the summer, Poffenbarger said she put in a lot of work with her trainer, Larry Gray, on using the dribble to create space for open jumpers — inside and outside the arc.
“She wanted to really get her mid-range jumper going because she didn’t want to be known as a 3-point shooter,” Amy Poffenbarger said. “She wanted to be an all-around player.”
After the game, Saylor Poffenbarger grabbed a hold of the net her teammates cut down on the north end of their gym and wrapped it around her neck. While she smiled from ear to ear and mugged for several pictures with teammates and fans, she left the gym far from satisfied.
“It’s exciting to do it with our seniors, but we’re not done yet,” she said.