MILFORD, Mass. – For the first two or three minutes of the game, it was Milford that looked like the team that had driven more than two hours from Pittsfield for Saturday’s non-league matinee. The Hawks fell behind 6-0 and look a little out of sorts in the season opener.
Then senior guard Jill Burley buried a three to cut the Taconic lead in half and the hosts kicked into gear. Milford went on an 18-2 run in the opening quarter to take a lead that it would never relinquish.
Sparked by junior Kate Irwin’s 21-point, four-assist, five-rebound performance and double-digit rebounds from senior Christine Pye (10) and junior Jess Tomaso (14), Milford held off Taconic 52-45 in a game that the visitors managed to keep close right to the end.
“The reason for it was we’re putting them at the line too many times,” said second-year Milford coach T.J. Dolliver of the Hawks inability to put the game out of reach in the second half. Taconic went to the line 19 times in the second half (30 times in the game) and made 10.
Dolliver added, “We fouled way too often and they were fouls that could be avoided. I said at halftime that if we’re going to keep them in the game then it’s going to be at the line and we need to stop fouling.”
The fouls started in the first quarter with Milford putting Taconic in the bonus before the end of the opening eight minutes and both Burley and fellow captain Nicole Dahlgren (seven rebounds) were forced to the bench for a long stretch due to foul trouble.
Milford showed its depth by finding other players to step up. Emily Piergustavo, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, had one of her three first half steals to get Irwin a transition basket and then the combo repeated it to tie the game at 8-8. Piergustavo (six points) buried a three off an Irwin assist to give Milford its first lead and Irwin added another basket off an offensive rebound.
Pye scored off a rebound and Gillian Valanzola scored off an inbound pass by Emma Liskov to give Milford an 18-8 lead. Taconic turned momentum around and went on a 10-2 run that cut the lead back to just two points, but Irwin scored with a drive to the left and a Dahlgren offensive rebound and kick-out gave Tomaso (six points) an open look from three to extend the lead back to eight.
Milford went into the break ahead 30-19 and rebounding played a big role in the Hawks lead. Dolliver said, “The nice part about our team is that we rebound from top to bottom. Our bigs rebound the ball very well and our guards rebound the ball very well. They’re very fundamental in their box outs and that’s huge.”
The third quarter was a struggle for both teams. Irwin buried a three to give Milford its largest lead of the game at 14 points, but the Hawks only managed one more made field goal for the rest of the quarter when Tomaso followed her own shot twice before finishing.
Luckily for the Hawks, Taconic was also finding it tough to score. The Braves had only two made field goals and three free throws in the third and could only cut two points off the halftime lead, trailing 35-26 into the fourth.
Milford started the fourth like it wanted to finally put Taconic away. Irwin hit a runner and then Dahlgren buried a long jumper. After being forced to the bench because of foul trouble, Burley finally got her chance and buried a pair of three-pointers that put the Hawks up 45-31.
“I was happy to see her hit those,” said Dolliver of Burley, “because I know she was frustrated because she got into early foul trouble and honestly didn’t play a lot until the end and then knocks down a couple shots and in her mind it’s forgotten.”
If Milford thought the game was done, Taconic had other ideas. After a two-hour drive, the Braves were going to keep it interesting for the full 32 minutes of game time. Taconic was 7-14 from the line and closed the gap to as little as six points with a few minutes remaining, but Dolliver called timeout to settle his team down.
When asked if in those pressure moments it helps having Irwin to give the ball to, Dolliver replied, “Of course…and now that we get Emily back as well it’s another ball-handler, which is huge when we’re getting pressured.”