The Northeast girls basketball team has had a Chesapeake problem in recent seasons. The Eagles’ last win over the Cougars came way back in January 2014, when Northeast christened its then-new gymnasium by beating the Cougars 37-24 in the first varsity game on the new court. It’s been all Chesapeake since.
Until February 8, that is, when the Eagles reanimated the rivalry anew.
Northeast employed a barrage of 3-pointers and a suffocating team defense to build a big lead and ultimately hold off a second-half Chesapeake rally, punctuating their season with a signature win over their visiting rivals, 45-43.
Senior Divine Benson led Northeast’s effort with 15 points and 8 rebounds while fronting a defensive unit that powered the Eagles (12-7) to knock off Chesapeake (14-4) and create an all-time memory in front of a spirited Friday-night home crowd.
“It’s big, it’s really huge. All four years I’ve been here, we’ve never beaten Chesapeake, so having that accomplishment is just a great feeling,” said Benson. “To walk out as a senior and just be happy, that was my goal, to beat Chesapeake my senior year, and we stayed together as a team and accomplished that goal.”
Despite losing to Chesapeake 60-29 back on January 4, Northeast seemed unfazed and not intimidated to start the rematch. Benson drained a rainbow 3-pointer on the game’s opening possession, then answered a 3-pointer by Chesapeake’s Haley Downin with another 3. Northeast’s Mackenzie Coburn made her first of three 3-pointers on the day and closed the quarter by blocking Summer Smith’s shot attempt, and the score was tied at 11-11 after eight minutes.
Their confidence established, the Eagles continued forcing the pace in the second quarter. Coburn opened the period with a 3, and Allyson Wills made a steal and went coast to coast for a tough finish on the run. Benson screamed and pumped her fists after muscling for a layup and the foul. Her and-one free throw gave Northeast a 23-14 halftime lead.
Any intentions Chesapeake had of stemming the tide were quickly run over by the Eagles out of the halftime break. Coburn hit another 3, Wills made a short jumper, Benson slashed to the bucket for a layup, and senior Ryleigh Nalley swished a 3 from the wing. Three minutes into the second half, Northeast had a 19-point lead with the score at 33-14.
Coburn, a sophomore, finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks, and 9 of her points came on no-hesitation bombs from behind the arc.
“I just keep my head up, keep passing, pass the ball around, get it back and keep shooting,” said Coburn.
The Eagles’ surge was buoyed by their defense. Benson relentlessly shadowed and denied Downin, Chesapeake’s normally potent offensive threat, limiting her touches and attempts and holding her to just 9 points. Nalley, Coburn, and Wills played excellent perimeter defense while Caroline Makarovich and Alyssa Borgert communicated effectively to clog up the lane, battle for rebounds and help defend on Chesapeake’s Corinne Castle and Morgan Gray. Northeast’s Alia Esposito and Carrie Hartzell played spot minutes to fortify the defense.
Makarovich said the defensive communication with Borgert and Benson to neutralize Chesapeake’s size inside was key.
“Very important on them, they have those two big girls, and we’ve got to make sure the one side is on the ball and the other side is on help, so it was great we had the movement with each other and were working together.”
Northeast coach Ed Nalley praised the defense but also knew Chesapeake wasn’t going to roll over despite a big deficit. “They were great defensively, our bigs,” said Nalley. “We are undersized for sure, but they didn’t give up. They battled. Great team defense … I told them when we went up, ‘They’re going to come back, they’re going to punch back, we just have to keep fighting and battling through it.’”
Chesapeake finally got some shots to start falling. Castle and Gray repeatedly powered inside for layups over the next five minutes, stringing together a 16-2 run that whittled Northeast’s lead to 35-29 by the end of the third.
The Cougars tied the game 35-35 in the fourth quarter behind baskets by Downin, Gray and Ashley Chew and managed to take their first lead since it was 9-8 in the first quarter when Downin made a free throw to make it 40-39 with 4:07 to play.
Having lost the 19-point lead, Northeast regrouped to finish the job. Nalley made a layup and was fouled, and she assisted on a score by Wills for a 43-40 lead. Castle answered with a layup, but Benson fed Coburn with a nice pass inside to make it 45-42.
There were still two minutes to play, but both teams made defensive stands and missed free throws in the closing minutes. A jump ball was called in Chesapeake’s favor with 4.9 seconds left, but Downin’s heave at the buzzer was off the mark, and the Eagles rushed to embrace one another in victory.
“I’m really happy right now, a lot of adrenaline,” said Ryleigh Nalley, flushed with excitement after the game. “I’ve never been more proud of our team. It’s awesome. I’ve been waiting for this for four years. I can’t even explain how happy I am. I was nervous and freaking out before the game, but I trust my teammates.”
Chesapeake coach Maria Gray noted erratic officiating that affected both teams but, more to the point, lamented uncharacteristically poor shooting by the Cougars from both the floor and the free-throw line. Chesapeake averages 60 percent from the free-throw line but was an abysmal 8-of-29 (27.5 percent) against Northeast.
“Like I told the girls, we can’t let a poorly officiated game dictate the game,” said Gray. “We left opportunities on the table that we need to capitalize on. We missed so many shots in that first half. We shoot free throws at practice and take pride in it. I was proud of our effort in the second half. We dug ourselves an uncharacteristic hole in the first half.”
Castle finished with 15 points and 18 rebounds, and Morgan Gray had 8 points and 19 rebounds for the Cougars.
“Our posts really stepped up in the second half when we needed them to,” said coach Gray. “But we need to make the shots we need to make in the first half so we don’t get ourselves into a position where we’re behind in the second half.”
The Eagles’ 12th victory gives the program its best season in 15 years and a huge win increase over the previous seasons. The Eagles had just eight wins combined in the three seasons prior to 2018-2019, and Wills said the group came into this year with a renewed outlook.
“I think this year was a new mentality, and we all came in strong,” said Wills, a junior. “We are like a family. We are so close. Out bench was so live. It was everybody. It was a team effort. It isn’t just one person. We all work together, and we have good team chemistry, and I think that helps our record.”
Coach Nalley said the winning record and the rivalry victory make the season successful no matter what happens from here on out.
With the win over Chesapeake, the Eagles proved their heart.
“The key to this game for us was our hearts,” he said. “They showed tons of heart when we could have quit, and we didn’t. I am happy for the girls. It means a lot to them.”