Not surprisingly, the Oakton High girls’ basketball team found itself in its usual, early game deficit when it met Atlee High (Mechanicsville) in a state AAA quarterfinals playoff contest Saturday evening, March 7 at Robinson Secondary.
Not surprisingly, the Cougars came storming back for an easy 74-45 blowout victory. With the win, unbeaten Oakton (29-0), which has made it a habit in recent weeks to come from behind to win crucial postseason games, was set to move on to Wednesday’s semifinals game versus Norfolk’s Lake Taylor of the Eastern Region. That contest, which took place after press time, was set to be played at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond.
In defeating T.C. Williams for the Northern Region title last week, Oakton overcame an 11-point deficit in the first half. Prior to that, the Cougars, after trailing by 19 points in the first quarter, defeated Mount Vernon in the region semifinals.
Against Atlee (24-5), in the first round state playoff game, Oakton fell behind 15-8 in the first quarter. But the Cougars, who are coached by Fred Priester, then went on a 12-0 spurt going into the second quarter to go ahead 20-15. Another Oakton flurry of points came over the final five minutes of the first half when the Cougars, after Atlee had tied the game at 22-22, went on a 16-6 spell to take a 38-28 halftime lead.
The Raiders, who had looked terrific early on in building its short-lived lead, were no match for Oakton in the second half, falling behind by 21 points (58-37) after three quarters and going on to lose by 29 points.
"I think we took the life out of them," said Oakton freshmen guard Caroline Coyer, last week’s region tournament MVP who scored a game-high 21 points in the Atlee game. "They’re probably a better team than that. As the game went on, our confidence boosted and we were hitting more shots."
Oakton outscored Atlee, 22-13, in the decisive second quarter. Coyer scored seven points in the stanza.
"Coach [Priester] was like, ‘Come on, let’s put this thing together,’" said Oakton senior Brianna Johnson, recalling the coach’s pep talk encouraging his team to break open a close game in the second quarter. "There comes a point where you have to stretch the lead. We worked real hard as a team."
<b>OAKTON DOMINATED</b> Atlee (Central Region) both inside and outside the paint. The Cougars connected on nine, three-point shots to the Raiders’ four. Inside the paint, Oakton out-rebounded Atlee, 33-14, and scored on numerous hard drives to the basket.
"We ran our offense real well and we were dropping our shots," said Oakton senior guard Sasha Borojeni (4 points). "We have a bunch of people who are such [scoring] threats; it’s so hard for people to guard us."
Defensively, Oakton was hurt early on by the prolific play of Atlee senior guard Sydney Henderson, who scorched the Cougars for 13 points, including three treys, in the first quarter. But after that, Henderson (15 points) was limited to two second half free throws.
"I thought our defense played real well," said Borojeni. "We were [each] stopping our kids."
Coyer nailed three, 3-pointers on way to her big game, and sophomore shooting guard Zora Stephenson, a self-described streaky shooter, nailed four treys on way to 18 points. Also in double digit scoring for Oakton was senior forward Erin McGartland, who scored 13 points, many of those points coming from the inside, while also pulling down a game-high 11 rebounds. Other good contributions came from freshmen guard Katherine Coyer (6 points, 7 rebounds) and Johnson (6 points).
McGartland, a First Team member of The Connection’s All-District Team, said it is wonderful being on a team where so many different people can pick up the scoring load.
"Everyone on the floor can score," she said. "It’s awesome. I can really count on every single girl on our team."
It has been quite a dramatic turnaround season for Oakton. A year ago, the Cougars struggled to run the floor. They were Concorde District champions, but saw their season end with a first round region playoff loss to Annandale.
"We didn’t run a fast break last year," said McGartland. "This year, we run the fast break and we go for the ball with pressure defense. It’s a 360 change from last year."
Oakton is making its second trip in three years to the state semifinals. Two years ago, the Cougars, behind region star Jasmine Thomas, made it to the state’s round of four. Now, the Cougars are back making another run at states.
"Two years ago, I was the youngest kid on the team," said Borojeni, with a laugh. "I was a sophomore then and watched that great Jasmine-[led] team. Now, I’m the oldest [player on the team]."
Borojeni, McGartland and Johnson are team tri-captains this season and have provided outstanding leadership to an unbeaten team that has a good blend of seniors (5), juniors (2), sophomores (2) and freshmen (2).
"I think [going to states] is a great experience for our [younger players] and our seniors," said Johnson.
"We knew we would be good coming in [to the season]," said McGartland. "But I never thought we would be this good."