GREENWICH — Sarah Eckerson was the center of attention during Tuesday’s FAA Tournament quarterfinal-round game between Sacred Heart-Greenwich and Hopkins School.
The Tigers focused on passing the ball inside to Eckerson and the Hilltoppers tried to defender her, but the senior center rose to the important occasion for her squad.
Scoring a game-high 21 points, while grabbing numerous rebounds, Eckerson helped lead second-seeded Sacred Heart to a 45-32 victory over seventh-seeded Hopkins in the FAA quarterfinals.
The host Tigers advanced to Thursday’s semifinal-round, where they will face visiting Greenwich Academy — the No. 6 seed. Greenwich Academy posted a 45-37 win against third-seeded Greens Farms Academy in Tuesday’s FAA quarterfinals.
Junior guard Leah Atkins tallied nine points, while senior guard Ryan Smith had four points for Sacred Heart, which seized control of the game by finishing the first half with a 14-3 run against Hopkins.
“We were saying that when I get the ball, it gives me the opportunity to work to score, but also it opens up the outside, because if I get the ball the defense is focused on the inside,” Eckerson said.
Sacred Heart’s center received the ball in areas other than the low post as well, enabling her to drive to the basket.
“I’m trying to be more mobile, not just posting up and finishing on the rebounds,” Eckerson said and that seems to be working out well.”
Hopkins (6-15) was led by junior forward Charlotte Yin’s eight points. The Hilltoppers, who dropped a 40-28 decision to Sacred Heart in the regular season, also received seven points from guard Abigail Mills. The final several minutes of the opening half was the difference, as the Tigers (17-5) pulled away to a double-digit lead.
“They made their baskets toward the end of the first half,” Hopkins coach Casey Blake said. “No. 31 (Eckerson) she was big for them in the middle, she was able to make her shots and get to the basket. We forced some nice turnovers, but were unable to capitalize on them. We got some decent looks, but we weren’t in a rhythm.”
Both teams started slowly in the opening half, but a free throw by Atkins and a left-handed layup by Eckerson gave the Tigers a 12-8 lead with just under six minutes remaining in the half.
Junior forward Casey Dies banked in a shot for the Hilltoppers and sophomore guard Fiona O’Brien swished two free throws, putting the visitors ahead, 13-12 with 3:46 left in the first half.
Then came the decisive run by the Tigers.
Atkins converted a baseline jumper, Smith made a mid-range jump shot, Atkins scored on a layup off a steal from Alana Frederick and made another basket off a Hopkins turnover, making it 20-13.
Eckerson then scored in the low post, then made a basket off a putback, opening a 26-15 advantage for the home team.
“Our man thing was getting it to the post and getting it to Sarah and once we did that on offense we were able to keep rolling,” Smith said. “Our offense flowed really well today and we relied on our defense to ignite our offense and give us opportunities.”
Added Atkins: “We always rely on our defense. The second half, we really turned it on. Defense is our main game, so it really helped us in the end. The semifinals, we need even more intensity.”
A 3-pointer fro the left side by freshman forward Emma Maldon brought Hopkins to within 26-19 in 16 seconds into the second half. A pair of free throws by senior forward Claire Liddy and an Eckerson basket, put the Tigers up again by double-digits at 30-19. Layups by Frederick and Morgan Smith gave Sacred Heart a 37-23 edge midway through the second half. The Hilltoppers’ 3-point shooting was held in check by Sacred Heart, which effectively defended the perimeter.
“When our long range shots aren’t falling, we have to get it into the paint, so we can get some confident shots up and make some free throws, which we didn’t make enough of today,” Blake said. “We are a work in progress, we have one senior, so everyone is coming back and we’re looking forward to the future.”
Liddy and Francoise O’Brien added four points apiece for the victors, who maintained their double-digit lead in the second half by playing effective man-to-man defense and applying pressure in the backcourt.
“At the end of the first half our press helped us and we got it inside to Sarah and she had a great game,” Sacred Heart coach Ayo Hart said. “Our guards did a great job of getting the ball to her and she used great footwork — she was brilliant.”
“We had a lot of energy coming into the game and that carried into the end of the first half,” Yin said. “In the second half, we came out with that same energy, but we lost it in the end. I’m really looking forward to next season, we have a lot of players returning.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Eckerson was consistent throughout, scoring 11 points in the first half and 10 in the second.
“She has really worked on her game and is more than a low-post player now and that’s great for us,” Hart said.
SACRED HEART 45, HOPKINS 32
Ella Zuse 0 2-2 2; Jasmine Simmons 1 1-3 3; Fiona O’Brien 0 3-4 3; Abigail Mills 2 3-4 7; Emma Maldon 2 0-0 5; Charlotte Yin 2 4-5 8; Casey Dies 2 0-2 4. Totals: 9 13-20 32.
SACRED HEART (17-5)
Ryan Smith 2 0-2 4; Alana Frederick 1 0-0 2; Claire Liddy 1 2-3 4; Morgan Smith 1 0-0 2; Leah Atkins 4 1-2 9; Francois O’Brien 0 3-4 3; Sarah Eckerson 10 1-1 21. Totals: 19 7-12 45