It took the Warwick Vets girls’ basketball team more than four minutes to score its first points of the season on Thursday afternoon.
But once the ’Canes got on the board, they were off and running.
Sophomore Casey Bennett scored a career-high 25 points and Vets steadily chipped away at an early deficit before surging in the second half to beat cross-town rival Pilgrim 47-44 in the non-league season opener for both teams.
It was quite a performance – and somewhat of a surprising one – for a Vets team that lost its two best players from a year ago and didn’t have a single senior on the floor.
“Just to see them play this way, the heart and the adrenaline, it was great,” said Vets head coach Owen Paquet. “It was great to see a victory today.”
Pilgrim and Vets play in different divisions now, and for the first few minutes Thursday, it looked like the D-I Pats would run away with it. While Vets scuffled, Pilgrim jumped on top 10-0. Danielle LeBlanc and Stefani Quaine hit jumpers, while Guilia Garcia buried a pair of three-pointers.
Vets finally found the basket when Bennett scored off a cut from the top of the key, and the ’Canes made it 10-4 on a bucket by Katie Gregory.
Still, though, the Pats seemed to be in control. LeBlanc turned steals into lay-ups on consecutive possessions, pushing the lead back to 10 with 9:15 left in the first half.
But that’s when things started to change.
Vets switched to a zone defense, and immediately, the height of Katie Gregory, Kristen Gregory, Emily Almonte and Lauren Almonte started to create problems for the Pats. They made just one field goal in the next five minutes, and LeBlanc – an all-division player – found no room to drive and had to settle for jump shots.
“We were in a little triangle and two and then we went into a zone,” Paquet said. “The wingspan of Emily out on the top of the key started shutting their offense down. That’s what turned the whole game around. From that point on, it started clicking.”
Kristen Gregory scored inside with 9:02 left to make it 14-6 before Bennett drilled a three to cut the lead to five. After a jumper by Quaine, Vets scored six straight points on a free throw by Katie Gregory, a lay-up by Kristen Gregory and a pull-up three by Bennett.
Pilgrim stopped the bleeding with a three by Garcia, but Bennett answered with another pull-up three to make it a one-point game. Garcia hit another three just before halftime, but it was clear the Pats were having a tough time.
“I felt like the defensive intensity changed a little bit, and I think offensively, we got a little frustrated with the size of Vets defense and not being able to work the ball in the paint,” said head coach Ian Smith. “As we go, I think we struggle to keep one half of the game working well all the time. The offense goes bad and sometimes it affects the defense way too much. I think that’s what started happening. They came back, we got frustrated not being able to score so we slipped on defense. It cost us.”
The Vets comeback continued in the second half, but Pilgrim kept it at bay for a while. After the Pats fell behind for the first time, LeBlanc hit a pair of threes to get them back in front. Garcia then hit another three to make it 37-33 with 7:59 left.
From that point on, though, it was all Vets.
Bennett made two free throws and Katie Gregory scored on a putback to tie the game. With 3:24 left, Kristen Gregory scored inside to make it 39-37.
Pilgrim tied the game on its next possession when Garcia was fouled shooting a three and made two out of three free throws. But Vets just kept coming. Kristen Gregory hit another shot in the paint, before Bennett made driving lay-ups on three consecutive possessions, suddenly making it an eight-point game at 47-39.
Pilgrim made a late run with a jumper from Katelyn Reph and a three-pointer by LeBlanc, but despite the fact that Vets missed six free throws in the final 1:02, the Pats couldn’t get any closer than three points, and Vets held on for the victory.
Bennett led all scorers with her 25, and she made five three-pointers. A role player as a freshman, Bennett served notice that she’s primed for bigger things this year.
“Unbelievable poise and confidence for a sophomore,” Paquet said. “I haven’t had a sophomore like that. She was unbelievable – the way she took care of the press, not hesitating on her shot. She really stepped up.”
Kristen Gregory added eight for the ’Canes, Katie Gregory had six, Emily Almonte scored six and Victoria Flynn chipped in two.
Pilgrim was led by Garcia, who hit six three-pointers and finished with 20 points. LeBlanc had 17, Quaine scored five and Reph had two.
“Guila Garcia was shooting well from the outside and a freshman, Megan St. Jacques, played well,” Smith said. “We had bright spots defensively, just not enough. But we were able to go through a lot of things, and it’s good to get the experience. We’re going to get better.”
The Pats will now jump into their Division I slate, which begins Wednesday on the road against Chariho.
Vets will play another non-league game on Wednesday against Scituate before its D-II opener on Friday against West Warwick.
And the ’Canes will head in with some newfound confidence.
“It means a lot,” Bennett said. “We’re excited. We know we have a lot ahead of us. This just shows what we can do.”