PEABODY — Now you see her, now you don’t. You let her out of your sight for a split second and she’s whooshed past you and stolen the ball on her way through.
She’s Oluchi Okananwa, “Looch,” a freshman dervish who was almost transcendent in her MIAA state tournament debut Tuesday night at the Peabody High gym. She had a team-high 16 points (14 in the second half), 10 steals and two blocks as the No. 2 Tanners (20-1) held off 15th-seeded Chelmsford (10-11), 55-39, in the first round of the Division 1 North tournament.
Next up for the Tanners is No. 7 Haverhill, 16-5, in the quarterfinal. The date is undetermined, but it’ll be in Peabody at 7 p.m. It’ll be the second straight Merrimack Valley Conference team the Tanners have faced in the tournament.
Peabody coach Stan McKeen said that Okananwa was nervous in the first half Tuesday, and it showed. She was missing layups she usually makes, he said, and after the first 16 minutes she had three fouls.
“She was frustrated,” McKeen said, “and we had to talk with her a little at halftime.”
Whatever the coaches told her, it worked. It was an entirely different “Looch” in the second half — and entirely different Tanner team, too.
“I think a lot of the kids had nerves,” said McKeen. “We were making some bad decisions, and our shots weren’t falling.”
Still, tight rims or not, Peabody, after scoring only six points in the first quarter, got busy in the second. The Tanners held the Lions to six points while reeling off 16, and went into the halftime up 22-16. Peabody finished the half with a flourish, with Liz Zaiter hitting a bucket at the buzzer to walk off the court with the edge.
“(Chelmsford) shut down Looch in the first half,” McKeen said. “But she did a great job in the second half, and so did the rest of the team.”
This wasn’t entirely the “Looch” show. Zaiter had a monster game too.
“Liz came to play,” McKeen said. “She was a force under the basket.”
How much of a force? She pulled down 13 rebounds (four offensive) and scored 13 points. Also logging a double-double was Catherine Manning (11 rebounds, 11 points).
But what turned the tide for the Tanners was Okananwa’s ball-hawking defense. Time after time, she was able to stick a hand into the scrum and either come out with the ball or bat it away to disrupt Chelmsford’s flow. And she owned the fourth quarter.
Peabody entered the final eight minutes up by only four (36-32) and that was only because of a buzzer-beating trey by Kristina Rossignoll.
Immediately at the start of the fourth quarter, Okananwa scored to make it a six-point lead. Two Zaiter buckets and a 3-pointer by Emily Carney, scored around a hoop by Chelmsford’s Abbey Quirbach, put the Tanners up by nine (45-36) halfway through the period.
Okananwa increased that lead with a basket on a steal. Moments later, she repeated the process, swiping the ball and going coast-to-coast for a layup (she made every one she attempted in the second half).
On the second hoop, she drew a flagrant foul on her way in, and hit the two free throws that went with it. By then, it was 51-38 and it was all over but the shouting.
“(Oluchi) was a raw talent when she game to us at the beginning of the season,” McKeen said. “She’s very aggressive.”
McKeen said that getting the first game of the tournament out of the way took a bit of a burden off his team.
“Face it,” McKeen said. “We come into the game 19-1. I don’t care what league (Chelmsford) is in. The pressure is on us. We’re supposed to win this game.”