By Phil Terrigno
In Ossining’s three losses against nationally ranked opponents at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona earlier this seasonyear, the Pride’s supplemental supporting players struggled to adequately fill their roles.
“When we were in Phoenix, those kids weren’t ready for that,” Ossining coach Dan Ricci said. “When Saniya (Chong) was double-, triple-teamed and slowed down, no one was there to step up. The difference now is that they are ready.”
Those players will get a chance to make a difference when the Pride take on Sachem East in the state semifinals at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy on Friday at 6:15 p.m.
Ossining’s supplemental players other four starters have improved drastically since the trip to Phoenix, and the benchmark of their development came in the Pride’s 69-49 regional semifinal win over Horseheads on March 5.
As is customary with Ossining’s wins, Chong led the team with 31 points but was able to defer to her teammates after Horseheads double-teamed the UConn-bound senior every time she drove in the lane.
“Usually, my defender will slide toward Saniya and she can dish it off,” Espinoza-Hunter said. “She has just as many assists as points.”
In her second season on varsity, Espinoza-Hunter has already racked up 95 3-pointers.
“My defender backs off of me because everyone wants to stop Saniya from scoring 60 points on them,” Espinoza-Hunter said. “They leave me open and I hit the shot.”
Samuels and Knowles have gracefully filled the frontcourt hole left by sophomore Destiny Walker, last year’s second-leading scorer who moved out of the school district in the fall.
“We are more balanced, and during the (offseason), we worked our butts off to become better,” Knowles said. “We try to get a lot of the pressure off Saniya and we are getting better at that.”
Ricci has also worked reserve forwards Madison Strippoli and JV call-up Abby Squirrell into his rotation.
“We’re a much deeper team than last year and that’s going to be big,” Ricci said. “All three teams left in the state tournament play five or six kids. Especially with the speed that we play at. The other teams are good but I don’t think they are used to playing at that speed.”
If Ossining beats Sachem East, it may find itself in a rematch against Cicero-North Syracuse, which featured current UConn star Breanna Stewart and ended the Pride’s season in last year’s semifinals.
“Breanna Stewart was amazing; we just ran into a better player,” Ricci said. “This year, we have that better player. Saniya was great last year but Breanna was better. Now, nobody in New York state is better than (Saniya). If the other kids all do their job, I think it will break our way.”
Class AA semifinal
Ossining (19-4) vs. Sachem East (21-2)
When: Friday at 6:15 p.m.
Where: Hudson Valley Community College, Troy
Key players: Ossining — Saniya Chong, Sr., G; Andra Espinoza-Hunter, eighth grade, G; Jalay Knowles, So., F; Sachem East — Katie Doherty, Jr., G; Kathleen Everson, Jr., F; Sammy Drake, Sr., G/F.
Outlook: The Pride have not lost to a New York state opponent this season and look poised to win the program’s first state title. The Flaming Arrows handed Massapequa (18-1) its only loss of the season in order to reach the final four. Sachem East won the Class AA state title in 2009-10 and are currently ranked No. 9 in the state.
What’s next: The winner of this game will face either Section 5’s Gates Chili (23-0) or Section 3’s Cicero-North Syracuse (18-3), the defending state and Federation champion, in the state final Saturday at 8:45 p.m.