Andrew Robinson (@ADrobinson3)
While Ava Irizarry may not get the attention her classmates Reese Zemitis and Lola Ibarrondo do, Neshaminy girls basketball’s third senior is an important part of the plans this winter.
In Tuesday’s season-opening slugfest with rival Pennsbury, Irizarry came through with two of the biggest shots in the game at crucial moments.
Irizarry scored all six of her points in the fourth quarter as Neshaminy grinded its way to a 36-33 overtime win against the Falcons to begin Suburban One League play.
“Their support always helps, and they just told me to keep shooting the ball,” Irizarry said. “Earlier I shot the ball, they were close but didn’t go in and they told me to keep shooting and not give up, so that’s what really gives me the confidence to shoot those.”
Neshaminy senior Ava Irizarry scored all six of her points in the fourth quarter in Tuesday's overtime win over Pennsbury. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
Irizarry, who played AAU with Upper Makefield Heat Hoops, knew her role was going to change before this season. With three players — two of them starters — departing from last year’s SOL Patriot champion and state qualifying team, Neshaminy not only had two lineup slots to fill but a key piece of its offense needed to be replaced.
Jess Purdy and Lindsay Little had defined roles as floor-spacing shooters, usually as an outlet in the corner for when Ibarrondo drove or Zemitis got swarmed in the post. Irizarry knew that was a spot she’d be asked to fill and put the time into it all summer.
“I spent a lot of the offseason working on my shot,” Irizarry said. “I had to come in and fill Jess Purdy and Lindsay Little’s shoes being that clutch shooter.”
Things didn’t go great at the start, the senior misfiring on her first three looks from behind the arc. She didn’t attempt another shot until the fourth quarter, but her teammates didn’t lose faith in her.
Showing poise, confidence and a good bit of guts, Irizarry sank both her 3-point shots in the fourth.
“The trust is there, she’s built up for this moment,” said Zemitis, who assistant on the first trey. “We have confidence in her and she has confidence in herself to shoot that ball, we need that. The fact she’s able to take those and hit those, it’s huge for our team.”
The two jumpers Irizarry sank weren’t necessarily the easiest looks or perhaps not attempts anyone in the stands expected her to take.
With Pennsbury having just cut the lead to three on back-to-back jumpers by Sofia Vitucci early in the fourth, Zemitis found Irizarry alone up the court with a hit-ahead pass to the right corner. Irizarry took a dribble and a step back behind the line then pulled, draining the look for a 27-22 lead with 5:55 to go.
Later, after a Layla Matthias hoop clipped the lead to three, it was Alena Cofield finding Irizarry alone in the same corner. This time the guard was set behind the line, but the result was the same, all net, which proved important with Vitucci immediately answering with a 3 of her own on the other end.
“You can see the work she put into her shot,” Zemitis said. “With Jess and Lindsay leaving, we needed somebody to fill that spot. She really stepped up and helped the team.
“It’s where we needed her.”
Unlike Zemitis and Ibarrondo, who have committed to Bucknell and Holy Family, respectively, Irizarry doesn’t anticipate playing basketball beyond this year. It’s a sport she picked up in first grade and loved right away, so she wants this last season to be a good one.
Aside from Cofield — a junior and returning starter — and the three seniors, Neshaminy is short on experience this year. Freshman Ashlyn Duffy was the fifth starter Tuesday, freshmen Grace Weyler and Mia Raivitch came off the bench and the team is hoping freshman forward Hayley Kolk will be able to return from a knee injury at some point this season.
Even with the youth and inexperience around her, Irizarry shared her fellow seniors’ preseason belief this team can not only equal the long playoff runs of the past two seasons but extend it.
“I think with this team, we can go farther than any other year since we’ve been here,” Irizarry said. “I have a lot of confidence in us as a group.”
The biggest lesson Irizarry’s tried to impart on the newcomers is that it’s OK to make a mistake in a game. She’s going to make some, Ibarrondo and Zemitis are going to make some, so she wants the freshmen not to get down if they do and know it’s how they respond that will mean more in the long run.
“I want to come in and give my contribution, however that’s needed,” Irizarry said. “I can tend to get kind of down sometimes when I miss, but my teammate’s reassurance is always what keeps me going.”
Another classic down to the wire
It feels like every time Neshaminy and Pennsbury play, there’s no point where it safely feels like the game is over.
Even the huge boost of emotion after Irizarry’s second longball of the fourth quarter, which came with 42.8 seconds left and would have been a dagger in most any other matchup, didn’t last one trip down the floor. Vitucci, who led all scorers with 24 points, drained the tying 3 with 5.8 ticks on the clock. A halfcourt heave by Zemitis bounced off back iron at the buzzer to force OT.
Zemitis, who had a rough night shooting the ball, still found a way to make an impact on the game.
The Bucknell recruit did get to 10 points, but it was the 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks on top of her playing most of the fourth and all of overtime as the primary defender on Vitucci that really showed up.
“The game with them is always close, I’d have to check but it feels like every game the past two years has gone into overtime,” said Zemitis, sporting a fresh scratch on her left cheek from battling for the ball. “It really does come down to defense. If shots aren’t falling, it’s a huge thing, getting those stops and grabbing those boards, especially now where every foul you’re going to shoot.
“Focusing on defense is big for me because if my shots aren’t falling, that’s something I can make up for on the other end.”
Neshaminy hurt itself with turnovers throughout the night and even the three seniors weren’t immune from some costly giveaways. The hosts just managed to get enough rebounds, stops and forced turnovers of their own to minimize the harm. Ibarrondo led Neshaminy with 16 points, adding eight rebounds and three steals.
Pennsbury, on the other hand, could look to the foul line as a sore spot Tuesday. The Falcons were just 9-of-22 as a team from the stripe, even the usually accurate Vitucci only hitting four of her eight attempts. What the visitors didn’t lack was effort, with senior Layla Matthias grabbing 11 rebounds and three steals while Maggie Burns kept giving her team extra possessions with seven of her 10 boards coming on the offensive end.
Last year, Neshaminy dropped both its regular season meetings with Pennsbury by just a point. Getting a win over the Falcons was an important first step, even with a full gauntlet of SOL games yet to play, for a young team not yet used to that kind of competition.
“I think it’s a huge boost for motivation and confidence,” Zemitis said. “It’s good for us to see we’re able to close out games like that, especially with it being our first game and how young we are. That was the first time we were able to do that in a while, actually, finishing a game against them so it’s huge for our team leading off this season.”
Neshaminy 10 | 5 | 9 | 8 | 4 || 36
Pennsbury 3 | 11 | 4 | 14 | 1 || 33
N: Lola Ibarrondo 16, Reese Zemitis 10, Ava Irizarry 6, Alena Cofield 4
P: Sofia Vitucci 24, Layla Matthias 4, Ava Jordan 4, Joley Hohman 1