Pirates Cook-ed by PHS

Senior guard has career high

By: Justin Feil
   The Princeton High girls’ basketball isn’t accustomed to having a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter.
   It showed, as visiting West Windsor-Plainsboro South turned up the pressure and whittled the lead to two points with 27.1 seconds left before the Little Tigers held them off for a 65-62 win Tuesday.
   "I was nervous," said PHS’ Erin Cook. "But I knew we could pull it out."
   It was the senior guard’s three-pointer that gave the Little Tigers a 50-35 lead with under seven minutes to go in the game. Cook, who has been one of the top three-point shooters in the Colonial Valley Conference in the past three seasons, showed off a growing arsenal of moves that made her virtually unstoppable Tuesday.
   "I worked really hard over the summer on driving," Cook said. "I knew teams would come out on me. I’m trying to score as much as possible for us. I think the girls look for me to shoot."
   Cook is averaging a lofty 18.8 points per game to lead the Little Tigers. She almost doubled that Tuesday with a career-high 35 points, one night after scoring 15 in a 62-34 loss to Notre Dame on Monday. Teammate Kelly Curtis had 21 points.
   "Number five (Curtis) and number ten (Cook) hurt us," said Pirates’ head coach Lisa Guarneri, whose team suffered its first loss in four games. "We tried some triangle and two. We had someone on (Cook). She still scored on it."
   The bigger number for Cook was No. 5, the win total for the Little Tigers after they captured their fourth victory in their last five games.
   " It definitely builds more confidence," Cook said. "We’re pretty happy with it. I think it gives us some confidence for the game (tonight) against Montgomery."
   PHS head coach Nikki Inzano says that her team could get a big boost from the win over a Pirates team that had been 8-5 with three straight wins coming into the game. Getting a quality win shows the team something she’s been preaching.
   "That we’re capable," Inzano said. "We’re capable of doing this – playing as a team and playing hard. They have to believe we’re capable of winning. It’s there for us. It’s all coming together now."
   The Little Tigers have found better scoring balance recently, which has alleviated some pressure on Cook and Curtis. It has also forced opponents to respect the other PHS players, who have been able to provide positives for the team even when they haven’t been scoring.
   "We just have to keep playing like this," Inzano said. "Leanna and Steph are playing great on defense. They’re helping each other out. They’re juniors, so we get to have them another year."
   The Little Tigers, however, will not get Cook for another year. Neither PHS nor Cook is happy about it.
   "It’s sad," Cook said. "It’s sad it’s my last year. It seems like we’re starting to pick things up a lot more. In the beginning, there were only two or three players scoring. Now we’re getting more. The defense is playing together. And we’re running our offense."
   It’s a good time to be a part of the PHS team. The Little Tigers’ win Tuesday was further proof of how much they’ve improved. PHS executed its plan perfectly against the Pirates as it jumped out to a 31-24 halftime lead.
   "It was good. We all scored," Cook said. "This year, it’s not been all of us scoring in a lot of games. Scoring-wise, it was good.
   "I think our defense was pretty good," she said of the start. "In the first half, we pushed the ball. We talked about running more before the game. And we played with intensity."
   WW-P South came out sloppy at the start of the game, but its intensity was hard to match in a frantic final six minutes.
   "I think we were trying to do too much," Cook said. "It was getting to us. On offense, we were rushing shots and we slacked off some on defense."
   Inzano explained, "They started pressing. We didn’t settle down on offense. We called a couple time outs and reminded them that we were leading, we didn’t have to hurry."
   The Pirates still chipped away. When WW-P South’s Becky Peters hit a pair of free throws, the lead slipped to 62-60 with 27.1 seconds left, but a technical foul shot and two free throws by Curtis with 20.1 seconds left sealed the Pirates’ fate.
   "It was a little too late," said Guarneri, whose team will host Lawrence tonight after taking on Pemberton on Thursday. "It happened against Steinert. We were down 12 to start the fourth quarter and we had to come back for that. We won that one.
   "We put more pressure on. You could look in their eyes. They did not want to lose. But it was too little, too late. There’s only so much you can do in such little time."
   Guarneri had hoped her team got away with learning that lesson against Steinert, only to see them try to repeat a difficult comeback again against PHS. She is hoping that the Pirates can bounce back to seal a spot in the state tournament. Tuesday’s loss was another tough lesson for a young team.
   "You can’t overlook anyone," Guarneri said. "We had won three in a row. We just need one win to make states. We didn’t get it against Princeton. They’re a better team than their record shows. We over-passed them."
   Other PHS opponents would be wise not to down the stretch. PHS won’t be able to reach the .500 mark by the Feb. 4 state tournament qualifying deadline, but it is finding its rhythm in time to spoil others’ hopes. Cook remains focused on the goals the Little Tigers still can achieve.
   "More wins and just playing together," she said. "Coming together and gelling as a team."
   Added Inzano: "We had a big win against Hightstown. We played Notre Dame (Monday) and it’s great to get a win for us going into Montgomery and Lawrence. It’s going to help us."
   Cook, who will play collegiately next year, will try to do her part to ensure that the Little Tigers are a difficult draw in her final Mercer County Tournament. This year more than any other, she’s faced opponents that put their focus into stopping her. WW-P South’s triangle and two was just one junk defense that she has faced. She’s also seen a box and one thrown at her.
   "There are a lot more like that this year," Cook said. "Now, a lot of the girls are starting to shoot and look to score more. They’re not counting on me as much now."
   Cook is showing that regardless of the defense, she can find ways to score. Whether it’s getting to the free throw line, showing off a subtly strong drive to the basket or her floating jumper, she has scored plenty. In her last four games, she’s managed over 100 points herself.
   "She’s learning how to drive to the basket better," Inzano said. "She can pull up. She can post up. She can go inside and outside. It’s her senior year. She wants to go out with a bang."
   Tuesday’s win over the Pirates was a good starting point.