Defense leads Baldwin past Freeport


The same formula that brought Baldwin three consecutive Nassau County Class AA girls’ basketball titles from 2010-12 has the Lady Bruins knocking on the door for a fourth championship in five seasons.

“It all starts with defense,” senior point guard Mariah Butler said after top-seeded Baldwin forced 30 turnovers and beat No. 4 Freeport, 55-38, in a Class AA semifinal game last Saturday night at LIU Post before a crowd of 1,500. “We bring a lot of defensive intensity, and it generates a lot of offense in transition,” she added. “Defense is what drives us.”

The Lady Bruins (14-1) scored the game’s first 12 points and kept their foot on the gas until head coach Tom Catapano lifted the starters with 4:08 remaining and the lead at 54-28. Junior Tiara Place paced a balanced scoring attack with 11 points. Sophomore Lames El Gammal had nine points and 10 rebounds, eighth-grader Aziah Hudson had nine points, Butler added eight, and senior Tyra Harrison chipped in seven points and five steals.

“Defense is our staple,” Catapano said. “We came out swarming and couldn’t have hoped for a better start. Offensively, we may not have a player who’s going to score 20 but we have many players that can score 10 or more on any given night.”

The Lady Red Devils (15-4) were led by junior AJ Smith’s 10 points and senior Taylor Miller’s nine. “I had some concerns with this matchup because they have two legitimate All-County players,” Catapano said. “Smith is the leading scorer in Class AA, Miller is a ferocious point guard, and they’ve also got a 6-foot-2 kid in [Deja] Hooks. They pose problems for teams.”

Baldwin, which suffered a quarterfinal round upset at the hands of Farmingdale last season, will face No. 2 Massapequa in the title game this Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at LIU Post. The defending champion Lady Chiefs rolled past third-seeded Mepham in the other semifinal, 69-34.

“This group is very humble,” Catapano said. “We have 11 returning players and they’re on a mission. They’re on a championship mission and they know it’s going to take a great effort to win it.”

After stifling No. 8 Uniondale in the quarterfinals Feb. 18, winning 41-16 behind El Gammal’s 18 points and 20 rebounds, Baldwin set the tone early against Freeport and didn’t allow a point until Hooks sank a free throw with 5:59 elapsed. The Lady Bruins were off to the races by then with six field goals, including three off turnovers, and held a 17-7 advantage through one quarter.

“There’s no tomorrow, so you’ve got to come out strong,” said Catapano, whose team allowed just four first-half points against Uniondale and hasn’t trailed after the opening quarter all season. “We watch a lot of film, and the girls take pride in preparation and game-planning,” he added.

The Lady Bruins opened the second quarter with a nine-point spurt, capped by Harrison three-pointer, and led comfortably at halftime, 33-16. El Gammal and Hudson had five points apiece in the third to bump the margin to 50-26 heading into the fourth.

“The way last season ended was a heartbreaker,” Butler said. “It definitely means a lot to get to the finals and have a chance to win another championship.”