PEABODY — A year ago, the Peabody girls basketball team was home when the state tournament rolled around. The Tanners needed two wins in their final regular season games, lost both and ended a frustrating season much earlier than they hoped they would.
This year has been a completely different story. The Tanners went 19-1 during the regular season (their lone loss came to Natick) and have won their first two state tournament games. Last Friday’s 62-56 win over No. 7 Haverhill gave No. 2 Peabody a bid into Tuesday night’s Division 1 North semifinal against No. 3 Central Catholic.
“The chemistry has been the difference this year,” Peabody coach Stan McKeen said. “The nucleus of last year’s team is back. They get along, they hang out together.
“The kids haven’t quit. We’ve been trailing in the fourth quarter of games. The kids have the will to win and it has carried over.”
Freshman phenom Oluchi Okananwa put together perhaps her best performance of the season in the win over Haverhill. Okananwa finished with a triple-double at 26 points, 16 rebounds and 16 steals. Catherine Manning just missed a double-double at 22 points and eight rebounds. Amber Kiricoples added a solid presence in the post, finishing with eight rebounds and six points.
“Catherine had a monster game,” McKeen said. “She went 10-for-10 from the free throw line. Oluchi made the last six free throws for us. Those two were the key factors for us, no question. Every game, it’s been somebody different for us. Oluchi almost had a quadruple-double for us. She had eight blocks.”
What do McKeen and his Tanners expect from Central Catholic? For one, they know they’re in a for a battle and it won’t be easy.
“We watched game films on them,” McKeen said. “They’re fast. They have a point guard (Nadeshka Bridgewater) who’s very good. She’s quick, distributes the ball well. They play man-to-man. I think playing the 3-2 zone has been a big factor for us.
“We’ll have our hands full. Central Catholic’s strength is in their quickness and speed. They move the ball and shoot well. They play tough defense. We’ll have to earn our win.”
McKeen feels Peabody’s keys to victory are solid defense and contributions up-and-down the roster.
“Liz Zaiter can be a big factor down low,” McKeen said. “She got into early foul trouble against Haverhill. They were a quick team. She’s not a speedster. She picked up a second foul and I think that took her out of the game. I’m hoping she can establish herself in the post. Kristina Rossignoll has been steady all postseason. She distributes the ball very well. Brooke Hodas and Colleen Crotty have been steady and played great defense. That’s been the key all year.”
Tip-off for Tuesday’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Peabody High.
“The kids are pumped up for the game,” McKeen said. “The next step is the game. We’re as prepared as we’re going to be.
“Regardless of what happens Tuesday we’ve had a phenomenal season.”