By Tom Pedulla
Members of the girls’ basketball team in Irvington, accustomed to shedding tears of joy in the postseason, blinked back tears of sadness after bowing to Putnam Valley, 52-49, in the Section 1 Class B final on March 7.
The Bulldogs were coming off a sixth state championship under legendary coach Gina Maher. They closed a season of tremendous adversity with a 17-7 record. Abby Conklin, the stellar senior point guard, missed significant time with a severely sprained ankle. Grace Thybulle, an imposing junior center, was sidelined for part of the schedule with a concussion.
Although Conklin and Thybulle returned to health in time to gain All-Tournament honors, the Bulldogs did not click the way they needed to against a Putnam Valley powerhouse that earned the Gold Ball at the County Center with a 20-3 record.
“We had incredible adversity this year. We played less than half of our games with all of our starters,” Maher said. “They kept fighting. They kept coming back.”
The Bulldogs trailed 30-23 at halftime and they did, indeed, fight back. They drew to within 39-37 when Conklin nailed a three-pointer just before the end of the third quarter. They pulled even three times in the final quarter, the last time at 44-44 on Thybulle’s free throw with 3:42 left.
In the end, Putnam Valley’s defense, particularly in its ability to deny Thybulle the ball inside, was too good and its outside shooting too precise. “They were shooting from NBA range,” said Conklin.
Maher called for a timeout with 11.7 seconds left and her team behind by what proved to be the final score. The Bulldogs never got a good look at what would have been a game-tying three-pointer to possibly force overtime.
“We just couldn’t execute on offense. We have so much offensive potential and it didn’t come to fruition,” Thybulle said. “There were definitely nerves. We could have executed a lot better and we could have scored a lot more and it was still close.”
Maher’s teams typically make improvements throughout the season and enter the playoffs with momentum that proves to be unstoppable. This team, with all of the adversity it encountered, never found its best stride.
“Coming to the finals with everyone healthy, you’re feeling good but it’s hard coming together when we’ve been so discombobulated and faced so much all season,” Thybulle said.
Maher credited Putnam Valley, which reached the final for the first time since 2007 and secured its first sectional title. “Putnam Valley is a really good basketball team,” she said. “They can shoot the eyes out of the ball and they’re well-coached.”
Thybulle should rank among the premier players in Westchester as a senior. She quickly seized on the defeat as inspiration to return to sectional supremacy.
“I’ve been on this team since eighth grade and I’ve never known anything but winning the section. I never had that feeling of what it is like to lose,” she said. “But nothing motivates the way losing does. It’s important for the young girls on the team to experience this.
“Up in the locker room, I was telling them, ‘You hate this feeling, right?’ They all looked at me and nodded. I said to them, ‘So don’t let it happen again.’ “
Maher’s teams have produced six state championships and 19 sectional titles while winning more than 700 games. When she was asked whether she plans to return for a 45th season, she replied, “Right now, yeah. I don’t think about that stuff now. I deal with the present. I haven’t even thought about it.”