By Conor Walsh
---- — GLOUCESTER — The Salem girls basketball team took the floor at Gloucester High School last night in a very similar position to that of their hosts.
Each team has shown positive glimpses throughout the course of the season, but inconsistency has pushed both near the bottom of the Northeastern Conference standings.
As the season continues to wind down and each team struggles to sneak into the state tournament, the desperation on the floor last night came as no surprise.
Salem, however, had an ace up its sleeve in center Jaclyn Panneton. With strong defense and an 18-point, 20-rebound performance from Panneton, the Witches were able to overcome a dominant performance from Gloucester forward Sophie Black and walk away with a 45-38 win.
“I think it was a battle of two teams that are desperate teams, struggling in the middle of the pack,” Salem coach John Fortunato said. “Both teams played extremely hard and I feel very fortunate that we made just enough plays to come out on top.”
The game seemed decided entering the fourth quarter. With the Witches, who had led since the opening minutes of the game, having extended their lead to 37-25 at the end of the third quarter, it appeared that all they’d have to do is ride out the final eight minutes to cruise to a victory.
Black, however, had already proven she had different plans. With Panneton dominating the paint for the Witches, Black provided the counterpunches for Gloucester, grabbing 10 rebounds and notching nine points in the second half to keep Gloucester alive.
With Black, who finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds, commanding much of Salem’s defensive attention and the young Witches turning the ball over rampantly, Gloucester cut the Salem lead to as few as six points in a fourth-quarter pushback.
“Black was killing us I thought,” Fortunato said. “Whenever we’d start to get up, she’d always seem to find an answer, find a big basket. I thought Black was just awesome tonight. We had a tough time with many different girls trying to cover her. She just looked like a veteran. I find that, with my young kids, they’ve just got to learn to not panic and keep their composure. Sophie shows that.”
After a timeout with 3:10 to play, though, Fortunato went back to his bread-and-butter and Panneton dropped shots on three consecutive possessions to allow the Witches to pull away.
“Take your hat off to Salem today,” Gloucester coach Brandon Lewis said. “That’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Gloucester’s trouble in creating its own offense was amplified in yesterday’s loss. Outside of Black, the Fishermen had no one able to create a shot against Salem’s aggressive man-to-man defense.
The result was just seven first-half field goals for the Fishermen, and while they were able to post 20 second-half points, their 15 turnovers and lack of offensive rhythm were the story of the game.
Did Salem’s defense prevent the Fishermen from setting up?
“Yeah,” Lewis said.
With the loss, Gloucester (5-9) falls closer to elimination from the postseason. With six games to go, the Fishermen can only afford one more loss.
And for the young Witches — eight of the nine players on their roster are freshmen and sophomores — it was an important learning experience, as they held off a Gloucester push for a key road win to get them closer to .500 at 5-7.
Gloucester will be back at it Friday, when the Fishermen travel to Saugus for their second matchup with a lowly Sachems team they’ve already beaten this season.
“Sophie played well and we rebounded alright,” Lewis said. “Everything else needs work.”