UWCHLAN - The race for the Ches-Mont League National Division girls basketball title is turning into one heck of a battle. Usually at this point in the regular season the standings are much clearer, but not this winter as everything is still wide-open and very much up for grabs.
With that said, however, one team has come into focus as the leader of the pack in a division in which five of the seven schools are separated by a mere two games or less in the loss column.
That team is Downingtown East.
On Thursday night, the Cougars capped their impressive week on the court with a critical 43-27 win over visiting Coatesville inside Robert A. Boyer Gymnasium.
Downingtown East (6-1 National, 11-3 overall) kept its hold on sole possession of first place in the division, thanks to their second pivotal victory in the span of two days, they downed West Chester East on Tuesday night. W.C. East (5-2) sits in a tie for second place with Bishop Shanahan (5-2). Coatesville (4-3), meanwhile, dropped into third place with the loss. Downingtown West (3-3), the only team in the league to down Downingtown East so far, is also right in the hunt despite currently being in fifth place. The top-two teams in the division following the completion of the regular season qualify for the Ches-Mont League Final Four Tournament.
"We had a bad game last week losing to Downingtown West, but since then we've played two very nice games this week,' said Downingtown East coach Bob Schnure. "We played really well against West Chester East on Tuesday and then again tonight against Coatesville. That's got us right back on track and keeps us in the No. 1 spot in a league that is very competitive. It's an exciting league this season. Our focus now is just worrying about that next game — one game at a time.'
When they met for the first time earlier this season in the league opener for both on Dec. 12, Downingtown East and Coatesville went right down to the wire. Downingtown East prevailed in a thriller, 39-37, thanks to a game-winning basket by junior guard Kaelyn Johns with four seconds remaining.
Those expecting another pulse-pounder on Thursday night were seriously disappointed, as it was anything but as the outcome was decided quickly.
That's because the Cougars jumped all over Coatesville right from the start on the strength of some suffocating defense to build a dominant 23-5 halftime lead.
They held the cold-shooting Red Raiders to only one field goal in the first half and forced nine turnovers. Downingtown East shut Coatesville out in the opening quarter, seizing an 11-0 advantage after the first. In fact, Coatesville didn't score a single point for the first 10:26 of the contest, when Nafisa Saunders finally ended the drought by draining a free-throw with 5:34 left in the second quarter.
Downingtown East received another balanced scoring attack with four players netting eight or more points. Johns led the way with a game-high 13 points.
"The last time we played them it came right down to the end,' said Johns. "So we were mentally prepared for another close game and I think that helped us out.
"We got off to such a great start. Holding them scoreless for 10-plus minutes to open the game was huge. We played outstanding on defense, and overall it was a total team effort.'
Senior Kennedi Van Eyken also played a really good game for the Cougars, as she scored 11 points. Sophomores Paige Warfel and Aryah Aungst also played well with eight points apiece. Lindsay Kent, meanwhile, was a defensive standout.
After their dominant opening half performance, Johns drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the second quarter. It was fitting for the way they played, and gave Downingtown East a 23-5 lead at halftime.
The Cougars then opened the third quarter on a 6-0 run to push their cushion to 29-5.
Coatesville never quit. The highlight of the Red Raiders' night came when Saunders, from just inside the half court line, banked in a long 3-pointer as time expired to end the third quarter. That cut the Downingtown East lead to 35-15 after three.
"The girls kept playing, which is good,' said Coatesville coach Fred Ellzy. "But we made a ton of mistakes tonight, and a good team like Downingtown East is always going to make you pay. We weren't able to come out and do what we wanted to do at all tonight, basically from the very start.'
Downingtown East, who is in the midst of a stretch that will see them play a grueling eight games in 15 days, jumps right back in action again tonight against Pottsgrove.
On Thursday, it was all about defense for the first place Cougars.
"We came out and played a really strong game on defense, and that was the big key for us,' said Schnure. "It helped us get off to a good start. Also our execution on offense was a lot better than it has been, and that is a good sign going forward.'
Downingtown East 43
COATESVILLE: Bookman 4 0-1 8, Saunders 3 3-4 10, Donovan 1 0-0 2, White 0 0-2 0, Turner 1 0-0 2, Irwin 2 0-0 5. Totals: 11 3-7 27.
DOWNINGTOWN EAST: Van Eyken 5 1-3 11, Aungst 2 3-4 8, Warfel 1 6-6 8, Kent 1 1-2 3, Johns 5 2-2 13. Totals: 14 13-17 43.
Coatesville 0 5 10 12 — 27
Downingtown East 11 12 12 8 — 43
3-point goals: Saunders, Irwin, Aungst, Johns.