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Lady Panthers looking to keep season from coming to Sutton end

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AYER — Because of the MIAA’s unwillingness to “seed with a brain,” the Central Mass. Division 3 Girls Basketball Tournament bracket has a familiar look to it. The top of the seedings are dotted with pretenders, while dangerous and tournament-tested squads, capable of contending lurk below them. The pretenders, which fattened up on soft schedules, will soon be exposed and the cream will rise to the top as it usually does.

Those who have watched the Ayer girls basketball team this season aren’t sure which category the Lady Panthers fall in, because they have played like both contenders and pretenders throughout the season. But one thing is for sure, being the ninth seed was no bargain as they drew a post-season threat in eighth-seeded Sutton, on the road.

Sutton resides in the competitive Dual Valley League and has a strong post-season pedigree. Ayer resides in MidWach D, which had an unusual format this season with the league teams playing each other three times. Six of Ayer’s games came against strong Maynard and West Boylston teams, which are sixth and seventh-seeded in the Central Mass. Diviision 3 Tournament, respectively. Those six games were very competitive and provided stern tests that will come in handy for the three teams as they enter post-season play.

What will the Ayer girls need to do to survive their tough opening test?

It starts with shooting the ball well as the team has been all over the map this year offensively. On nights when they are hitting shots to complement their strong defense and rebounding, the Lady Panthers are tough to beat.

“We need our shooters to have a good night,” said Ayer coach Joe Scunziano. “We are going to need to hit some three-pointers in the game. We want the game to be played in the 40s or the 50s, the higher the better.”

They will also be facing the most dangerous offensive threat they have seen this season in Sutton center Amanda Harrington. She is the biggest player the Lady Panthers have faced and enhances that size with solid fundamentals and an ability to finish inside the paint. She resembles no player on Ayer’s schedule this season, and the Suzies will continually look to get the ball inside to her. Additionally, blocking Harrington out is imperative.

“We will attempt to keep the ball out of Harrington’s hands as much as possible,” said Scunziano. “We will double-team her with a player in front and behind. We will press the whole game. We want to control the pace and tempo, and we want to avoid a half-court game. We will gamble against Sutton’s other four players, and we will try to make them have to beat us.”

Ayer has good size up front in juniors Brynnan Farrington and Amanda Shaughnessy.

“We need Brynnan and Amanda to stay out of foul trouble,” said Scunziano.

The Lady Panthers’ season was a roller coaster ride with wins over Maynard and West Boylston being the high points, and losses to Murdock and Littleton being the low points.

“Out of our six match-ups against Maynard and West Boylston, five of them were really good games,” said Scunziano. “Because of our unique league set-up and schedule we played three games a week, and I think that helped toughen us up.

“Our two worst losses were to Murdock and Littleton,” said Scunziano. “We had a good lead against Murdock at home and let it slip away. Against Littleton we scored only 28 points.”

If there has been a constant this season, it has been the team’s defense.

“We have been very inconsistent offensively, both from game to game and within games,” said Scunziano. “The game that comes to mind is the home loss to Maynard when we quickly jumped out ahead 11-0 and they came back and beat us. We need to be able to put four good quarters together. We might have done that twice this season. That has been our Achilles heel. Our defense has been the most consistent aspect of our game.”

Does Scunziano feel the Lady Panthers are ready for the challenge?

“Mentally we are ready,” he said. “Physically we are also ready as we have had almost a week’s rest and everyone is healthy. We are as prepared as we can be heading into the Sutton game.”