AYER - When two teams are separated by a rotary and a couple of stop signs, it is expected that the rivalry will breed physicality and deep entrenched respect between the two schools.
Ayer Shirley fell 45-35 to Littleton Thursday night at home. The Lady Panthers trimmed the Littleton lead to single digits twice in the fourth quarter, but fatigue started to plague head coach Pete Page's line-up in the waning minutes.
"They're probably one of the deepest teams we are going to see all year," Page said. "They have four bigs that they rotate in two at a time - and a good group of guards. My hat's off to them, I thought they (Littleton) played great. Our girls got a little tired at the end with some careless passes. I think our legs went a little bit, but that's a credit to how much talent they have and how deep they are."
Both teams from the opening tip-off were competing at a feverish pace. The opening quarter featured six lead changes which left the Lady Panthers trailing by one after a Meg Ackerman (10 points) three with 20 seconds left.
Ackerman's three gave the Lady Tigers an 11-10 advantage at the end of one. Melissa Belanger reclaimed the lead for the Lady Panthers on a turn-around put-back jumper early on in the second quarter.
The vacuum-tight Ayer Shirley man-to-man defense helped force uncharacteristic Littleton turnovers. Late in the second, junior guard Tina Babcock (nine pointsconverted in transition on a coast-to-coast layup to bring the Lady Panthers back within one, 19-18.
Following Ackerman's second three-pointer of the game, the Lady Tigers took a 22-18 lead into the half.
Littleton swiftly extended its lead to 11 points following a 13-4 run to start the third quarter. Ayer Shirley kept pecking at the deficit with a timely three-point basket by Olivia Warilla (eight rebounds) who was set-up with a well-placed skip-pass from Hailie Young.
Trailing 39-29 midway through the fourth quarter, Ayer Shirley continued to dive and scrap for loose balls, but it was unable to convert on some quality opportunities in the paint.
The Lady Panthers' weary legs got the best of them late in the fourth quarter, but they refused to retreat without a fight. Ayer Shirley continued to battle for every loose ball and rebound for the off-chance that it could result in points. Belanger saved an errant pass from going out of bounds as time expired.
At the time of publication, Ayer Shirley's overall record sits at 5-4, while Littleton improves to 8-1 overall and 5-0 in Mid-Wach D play. Hebert led the Lady Panthers with a double-double of 13 points and 17 rebounds and five steals. Erin Dorey paced the Lady Tigers with 13 points and six rebounds.
"We had a couple of wide open looks at threes which would have been big differences, but when your legs are tired, the first thing to go is your shot," the coach said. "For whatever reason this year, we have been missing a lot of point-blank bunnies.
To beat a team like this, we have to be able to finish at the hoop. But, I am happy with how hard the girls competed right up to the last second. We knew coming in Littleton was going to be a tough team. We are 5-4, and I couldn't be anymore happier with them."
Next up for the Lady Panthers is Tahanto Tuesday night in Boylston. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.