FALL RIVER — It took a bit for Fall River’s prep girls basketball team to get the engine to turn over, but once it did, the Pirates cruised.
They cruised all the way to their sixth straight Trailways West Conference championship, in fact.
Karlee Van Gysel scored 11 points in the second half after being held to only one in the first half, the Pirates’ defense clamped down, and a one-point lead at the break turned into a 15-point victory as host Fall River claimed a 53-38 win over Highway 16 rival Rio on Friday night.
The win coupled with second-place Randolph’s loss to third-place Markesan — two new conference rivals for Fall River this season in the newly formed Trailways West — clinched the outright league title for the Pirates (19-1, 12-1 Trailways West).
“This is a heck of a lot tougher conference than what we played in the last five years,” Fall River head coach Jim Doolittle said. “So this one — although the other ones were sweet — this one is really sweet because we are the first to win the West.
“And that’s something that these kids can hang their hat on.”
Fall River’s calling card against Rio (13-7, 7-6) was defense — particularly after allowing the Vikings to race out to a 9-0 lead in the first 6 minutes of the game.
But experienced as the Pirates are — many of the girls on the rosters are holdovers from the team that went to the Division 5 state tournament in 2016 and all have been part of at least one conference title — they didn’t get rattled.
They just buckled down and went to work.
“We always normally come out a little flat, but we always persevere and always have a little passion to get that final push to win,” said Van Gysel, who also had four assists and four rebounds.
“We knew that they were going to come out (with intensity). It’s a rivalry — it’s become a friendly rivalry now — and both teams want to win really bad,” Doolittle added. “We were getting OK shots; we just weren’t finishing.
“I thought our defense kept us in the game. … And then we chipped away at it and we finally broke the ice. I thought the kids played with poise tonight.”
The Pirates clung to a 21-20 lead at halftime following Jordyne Fletcher’s short jumper with 20 seconds to go in the first half and a defensive stand on the other end. Then they really got going in the second half.
A second-chance basket by Rio’s Mckenzie Sampson with 1:35 gone by brought the Vikings to within one again at 23-22, but then Van Gysel got hot and hit a pair of 3-pointers from the top of the key — the second one 5:53 into the period to cap a 12-0 run giving the Pirates a 35-22 lead.
“We’ve been asking her, begging her, when she gets that wide-open shot at the top of the key, to let it go,” Doolittle said, adding that being more aggressive and attacking the basket led to more free throw attempts — although Fall River finished poorly in that regard at 17-of-38 — and was another key factor in the Pirates pulling away in the second half.
Sam Leisemann also played a big part, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds for Fall River. Morgan Tramburg had seven points and nine rebounds, while Maddie Gregorio had eight points and four steals and Lexi Rozinski had five points and eight rebounds.
Ultimately, though, the biggest factor was keeping the pedal to the metal and not letting up no matter how big the lead got.
“I said, ‘Let’s play like we’re five points down — we’ve got to chip away so we can build that lead,’” Doolittle said of his halftime message. “And it worked.”
FALL RIVER 53, RIO 38
Rio 20 18 — 38
Fall River 21 32 — 53
RIO (37) — Jordyn Hutzler 21, Mckenzie Sampson 4, Jada Graham 1, Ashley Hagenow 5, Kristan Larson 1, Adeline Hutzler 4, Karyssa Quist 2. TOTALS (FGM FTM-FTA PTS): 14 10-24 38.
FALL RIVER (53) — Morgan Tramburg 7, Karlee Van Gysel 12, Taryn Schwartz 2, Maddie Gregorio 8, Lexi Rozinski 5, Jordyne Fletcher 3, Sam Leisemann 16. TOTALS (FGM FTM-FTA PTS): 17 17-38 53.
3-pointers: Rio 0, Fall River 2 (Karlee Van Gysel 2). Total fouls: Rio 29, Fall River 19. Fouled out: A.Hutzler, Van Gysel.