Firecracker Clement – 3-1 in Deep South NC Tournament
Firecracker Clement 16u at Deep South Classic 2019 – By Brian Clement
A year after the most talented team in their history has moved on (Fordham, Indiana, Harvard, George Washington, St. Anselm’s and St. Joseph’s commitments), the Maine Firecrackers arrived at Deep South Thursday with lower expectations. Playing in the top division (17u) in the most competitive bracket (J) out of nearly 400 teams from around the country would represent a challenge for sure.
Game One: Firecrackers 39 – 602 Elite 28
602 Elite out of Arizona started with game with intensity and caused two Maine turnovers in the first 30 seconds of play as the Mainers weren’t prepared for the speed of the game. 602 Jumped out to a 5-0 lead before Amanda Kabantu and Paige Cote knocked down three’s to take the lead back and ignited a rally that included 2 steals and finishes for Gemima Motema and a triple by Camille Clement. Despite tenacious Arizona defense, the Firecrackers managed a 21-14 halftime lead. Kaleisha Towle followed an offensive rebound with a put back and Caroline Smith knocked down a smooth 15 footer to extend the lead to 35-28 and the Firecrackers managed a 39-28 victory. Clement (13), Kabantu (9) and Cote (6) led a balanced scoring attack while Julz Colby was instrumental in managing constant pressure from the 602 guards. This game was won on the defensive side of the ball, however, as the Firecrackers half-court defense was formidable.
Game Two: Firecrackers 69 – Sweden Lulea Blue 68
Lulea Blue of Sweden won their opening round by 36 against Fencor, the former program of Elena Delle Donne so this was going to take a Herculean effort for the underdog “Dirt Farmers” from Maine. Unfortunately, Lulea Blue started out Lulea Red (Hot) by making their first 5 shots (all from 3) and the Firecrackers started Casco Bay cold finding themselves in a 15-6 hole. Maggie Whitmore (recovering from the flu) got her legs back and hit three consecutive mid-range shots followed by a traditional three point play off the glass but Sweden drained 3 more bombs to extend their lead to 30-18 before Camille Clement bounced back from a slow start to connect on 4 threes to cut the deficit to 39-33 by halftime. Considering Sweden made 10 three pointers in the half, the Firecracker coaches Whitmore and Clement felt fortunate to be down by only six, telling their girls to keep battling because there was NO way Sweden could shoot that well in the second half….. Until they did, hitting two consecutive bombs to extend the lead back to 12. Whitmore and Paige Cote each connected to stem the tide before Caroline Smith cashed in on two spectacular drives and Gemima Motema came up with an amazing steal and highlight worthy finish where she seemed to stay in the air for an eternity to the amazement of the crowd. Lulea continued to spread the floor and move the ball quickly to find shooters but finally began to cool. Julz Colby drained a long three to cut the lead to five before Kaleisha Towle had a beautiful baseline runner over a 6’2” Swede and the Firecrackers were only down 57-55 when Kabantu soared above much taller post players to snatch a rebound and lay it back to the joy of the Firecracker bench and parents. Colby then stole an entry pass and found Clement on the wing for a three to put the Mainers up 60-57. After Smith converted a Sikma-like step through, Whitmore beat the pack for a layup on a half court pass from Colby and Clement made a reverse layup in traffic to extend the lead to 67-55 with 3:07 left and it appeared Maine would cruise to victory but Lulea hit 3 consecutive bombs after causing turnovers with their aggressive press and the lead was cut to 69-68 with 15 seconds left. Fortunately, the Firecrackers were able to hang on for the one point victory. Lulea Blue earned tremendous respect from the contingent from Maine and put on a show with 16 made three pointers accounting for 48 of their 68 points. This game could have only been won with a huge amount of grit and determination from all eight Firecrackers and they got contributions from all of them, fortunately. Camille Clement led all scorers with 27 (6 threes), Maggie Whitmore had 15 and 7 rebounds, Kabantu 9 (6 offensive rebounds), Smith 6 (3 assists), Colby 5 (6 assists), Motema 4 (4 steals and 2 blocks), Cote 4 (8 boards) and Towle 4 (5 rebounds).
Game Three: Firecrackers 50 – Taylor Hill 46
Taylor Hill of Minneapolis posed a new challenge with both athletic guards, three very big post players, and an excellent three point shooter. All were on display in the first 4 minutes leading to 9 points but a nice bucket by Paige Cote, a long triple followed by a pull up from Camille Clement, and a beautiful feed from Maggie Whitmore to a cutting Kaleisha Towle knotted the score at 9-9. Taylor Hill’s matchup zone proved to be a challenge for Maine’s offense and after two quick Cote fouls the Firecrackers found themselves the much shorter and lighter team on the floor. After falling behind 20-10 midway through the first half, Maggie Whitmore got to the foul line twice (4-4) and Gemima Motema stepped in front of a Taylor Hill entry pass going coast to coast but the girls in orange still trailed 21-15. A bullet pass in transition from Colby to Clement followed by a Caroline Smith smooth pull up closed out that half with Taylor Hill leading 26-19. In the second half the Firecrackers began to figure out the matchup zone. Julz Colby helped matters with back to back triples and then Maggie Whitmore put her team ahead with a beautiful euro step in transition to make it 32-31. The game remained close but the Firecrackers closed it out thanks to a foul shot from Motema and two each from Clement and Kabantu as they advanced to the bracket finals. All eight players scored again with Clement (17) and Whitmore (12) leading the pack.
Game Four (Bracket Finals): KC Dream 41 – Firecrackers 38
This game showed signs of rubber legs for both teams with Kansas City Dream being a tough match up. Maggie Whitmore and Amanda Kabantu scored 11 of the Firecrackers 17 hard to come by first half points but KC showed signs of fatigue also with just 19 points at the break. This game was physical and hard fought and the action in the post was especially intense with Paige Cote and Kaliesha Towle battling hard against their larger opponents. In the second half Gemima Motema stepped up with inspired play (6 points, 4 rebounds, and a block in the stanza) and the Firecrackers took the lead 30-28 after two Whitmore hoops and 4-4 from the foul line from Kabantu. KC took the lead back but Clement hit a three and Colby had a beautiful floater to tie the game at 38 before KC made a traditional three point play and with the score 41-38 two cracks to tie the game fell short leading to elimination of the Firecrackers. Kabantu (11) and Whitmore (10) led the Firecrackers while Motema finished with 8 and Clement 7. Colby did yeoman’s work once again in the face of tremendous defensive pressure. The Firecracker defensive effort was enough but they couldn’t muster enough on offense to get over the top in this one.
Deep South was exactly what the Firecrackers hoped for – fast and physical competition with lots of defensive pressure. All four opponents posed challenges and the Maine kids experienced and overcame significant adversity. There was enough success to prove we belong, but also enough struggle to prove there is more work to do. Along the way, players and parents enjoyed the experience in North Carolina. Thanks for all the support from parents, friends of the program, and college coaches who watched us play. There were over 400 college coaches at the event and among those watching the Firecrackers play were Northeastern, Marist, Holy Cross, American, Fordham, Maine, Williams, Hartford, Davidson, George Washington, Vermont, Boston University, Quinnipiac, NJ Institute of Technology, and UMass.