By Michael Kelly
NISKAYUNA — Head coach Sarah Neely kept tensing up her left arm, wrestling with whether to use it to motion Niskayuna junior Olivia Owens to head back into Friday’s Suburban Council girls’ basketball game against Averill Park.
Owens, meanwhile, sat on her team’s bench with two first-half fouls, tapping the heel of her left sneaker to the ground to release some of her pent-up energy.
In all, Owens — Niskayuna’s star and a Division I recruit — ended up sitting out from 6:23 to 2:07 in the second quarter of Averill Park’s 56-51 win. The span was critical, as Niskayuna’s 12-11 lead when Owens left the court turned into a 25-14 advantage for Averill Park by the time Owens returned.
“Every coach has to try to figure out where the game is going and how far you’re going to let things slide if you keep players on the bench,” Neely said of how coaches try to handle early foul trouble for star players.
Really, there is no right or wrong answer. Yes, Averill Park went on a big run when Owens — who ended up finishing with only three fouls — sat out, and Averill Park head coach Sean Organ was disappointed his team did not get more time with Owens on the bench.
“Naturally,” he said when asked if he’d hoped Neely would have kept Owens out even longer. “I mean, she’s a great player. She’s super-athletic and, more than anything else, she changes your shots because she makes you uncomfortable in your own offense.”
But removing a foul-plagued Owens, Neely said, did more than just keeping Owens away from a third foul. It also gave the junior time to recalibrate mentally to adjust to how the game was being officiated.
“She was playing hard underneath and she was going for every rebound and they were calling a lot of fouls,” Neely said of the 6-foot-4 Owens, who finished with a game-high 24 points and 16 rebounds. “So it was good for her to take a break, too.”
Of course, it almost didn’t seem to help. Immediately upon her return to action, Owens flirted with fouls on back-to-back possessions going for steals as her coach shouted in horror — “Olivia, no!” — from the sideline.
No foul was called, though, and Owens said she had been keeping her foul situation in mind.
Well, to a point.
“When I was playing defense [after I re-entered the game] and I was going for a steal, I had to make sure I could see where the ref was and show him I’m going for the steal and I’m not touching her,” said Owens, who has scored at least 20 points in half of Niskayuna’s games this season. “You have to still play aggressive. You can’t just stand there and let someone dribble the ball in front of you. I was concerned about the fouls, but you still have to play hard.”
Her teammates were glad to get her back on the court, too. While Niskayuna has been playing better in recent weeks and had won two of three heading into Friday’s game, senior Megan Mausert said Niskayuna needs as many minutes as possible from Owens each game.
“Not only does she help us [with her talent], but you always know she’s there,” Mausert said. “She talks and calls things out for us. We all have to step up when she’s out and start doing that.”
Down 29-19 at halftime, Niskayuna and Owens almost completed their comeback in the second half. Owens scored 14 points in the third quarter, as Averill Park only took a one-point lead into the fourth. But junior Stephanie Jankovic scored the first two baskets of the fourth quarter to start a 9-0 run for Averill Park (5-4, 6-6), which maintained control the rest of the way against Niskayuna (2-7, 4-8). Jankovic finished with a team-high 19 points, while senior Kat Stackrow added 15.
In the moment of figuring out when to put Owens back into the game during the first half, Neely said she continuously second-guessed herself. After the game, though, she said she wouldn’t use post-game knowledge of how close her team had come to recording the victory to further question her choice.
And, in the end, what was it that made Neely comfortable enough to put Owens back in when she did Friday? Well, it came down to a promise.
“Listen,” Neely told Owens before she went back into the game, “you just can’t get another foul.
Jankovic 6-7-19, Kelley 2-1-5, Mazzeo 0-2-2, Morgan 1-0-2, Piche 1-2-4, Stackrow 5-2-15, K. Wood 2-0-4, M. Wood 2-1-5. Totals: 19-15-56.
Greco 4-1-9, Hamilton 4-0-8, Mausert 3-0-6, O’Meally 2-0-4, Owens 9-4-24. Totals: 22-5-51.
Averill Park 11 18 14 13 — 56
Niskayuna 8 11 23 9 — 51
Three-point goals: Stackrow 3, Owens 2.