By Dave Dyer
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — In the pre-season, the Billerica girls basketball team was considered a legitimate Merrimack Valley Conference contender.
But, loaded with talent, including four-year starter Shannon Hayes, the Indians didn’t play nearly as well as head coach Chris Doneski had expected.
Until last night, when they surged past North Andover, 53-38, in the first round of the Division 2 North tournament. That’s the same North Andover team that had beaten them twice during the regular season.
“We just didn’t play as well as we were capable of playing,” said Doneski. “We couldn’t put two good halves together. I guess we were going through growing some pains.”
Billerica’s inconsistency came to an end last night as it outscored the host Knights 31-13 in the middle two quarters, combining good teamwork offensively, excellent defense and far superior rebounding while improving to a modest 12-9.
The performance did not surprise first-year North Andover coach Meg Ryan, whose club ended its season at 11-10.
“Billerica is an excellent team and their defense was really good,” said Ryan. “They did a good job of clogging up the middle and we didn’t hit the shots we usually do. That combination was too much to overcome.”
The game started promising for the Knights as Megan Collins drove to the basket for a field goal and Abbie Karalis followed with a 3-pointer, providing a 5-0 lead. Billerica then regrouped but, after a wild opening eight minutes that saw eight lead changes, North Andover still led 15-13.
But Billerica had already been outrebounding the Knights and, when its shots started falling in the second quarter, the tide turned.
Ahead 33-26 at halftime, Billerica tightened the screws defensively in the third quarter allowing just a Leah Chittick driving layup in the final minute of the frame. That gave the Indians a near insurmountable 44-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“The last time we played them (a 51-49 North Andover victory), they did a number on us trapping and playing tough man-to-man,” said Doneski. “We knew a little more what to expect this time and did a good job of spacing.”
Shannon Hayes led Billerica with 14 points, but it was a balanced attack as 10 players scored. More important, perhaps, the Indians had five players with at least five rebounds, giving North Andover very few second chances.
For the Knights, who were 5 of 27 from the floor in the second half, Chittick finished with a team-high 11 points and Collins chipped in with nine.
Although disappointed with yesterday’s result, Ryan was happy with her first season at the helm.
“It’s always tough when you have a new coach coming in, but the kids grew as the season went on and we improved a lot,’ she said. “That’s going to help a lot going forward.”
All but three of North Andover’s points scored last night were by underclassmen.
Billerica 53, North Andover 38
Division 2 North First Round
Billerica (53): Caroline Gillis 3 0-0 7, Maura Barones 1 1-2, 4, Alexa Napoli 2 2-2 6, Karolyn Higgins 0 2-2 2, Maya Thompson 1 1-2 3, Caitlin Boermeister 1 4-5 6, Lauren Zorro 3 0-0 6, Lily Coppinger 1 1-2 3, Shannon Hayes 6 1-2 14, Caitlin Catania 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 12-17 53
North Andover (38): Aralee Bogar 2 0-1 4, Leah Chittick 3 5-8 11, Abbie Karalis 3 0-1 7, Megan Collins 3 3-4 9, Rachel Davies 1 2-2 4, Christina Castaldo 1 0-0 3, Mackenzie Mello 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 10-16 38
3-pointers: B — Gillis, Barones, Hayes: NA — Karalis, Castaldo
Billerica (12-9): 13 20 11 9 — 53
North Andover (11-10): 15 11 2 10 — 38