Home Local Sports Padua defense key as Pandas knock Saint Mark’s from ranks of unbeaten

Padua defense key as Pandas knock Saint Mark’s from ranks of unbeaten

Brooke Emmi (left), guarded by Saint Mark's Ava Berardi, had 13 points and led the Pandas' stellar defensive effort. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

WILMINGTON — The battle between two of Delaware’s top forwards was fairly even, but Padua picked up the necessary secondary scoring to go along with a lot of airtight defense in a 45-32 win over Saint Mark’s in Catholic Conference girls basketball on Jan. 14 at Padua. The loss was the Spartans’ first of the year after 10 wins.

All eyes were on the middle of the floor, where Padua’s Michelle Kozicki and Saint Mark’s Serena Pluta were set to face off. Both players came in averaging more than 20 points per game. The early advantage went to Kozicki, who took a pass from Brooke Emmi off the opening tip and went in for an up-and-under shot to put the Pandas on top.

Serena Pluta of Saint Mark’s shoots over two Padua defenders. She finished with 16 points. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

Pluta answered on the Spartans’ first possession, hitting a long two, but that would be the last time the game was tied. Kozicki scored the next five points, converting an old-fashioned three-point play before sinking a 16-foot baseline jumper. Emmi went down low for a field goal, and Kozicki made one of two free throws to extend the run to eight points.

Saint Mark’s struggled to find open shots against an aggressive Padua trap, and turnovers would bug them throughout the contest. The Pandas took advantage of the extra opportunities, taking a seven-point lead after one.

The lead grew to 11 early in the second thanks to Emmi. She took a pass off a rebound from Kozicki and laid the ball in with 6:50 on the clock, then intercepted a pass 15 seconds later and raced to the other end for the transition layup. That pushed the lead to 21-10 and prompted a Saint Mark’s timeout.

Emmi said it’s important for Padua to get scoring from players other than Kozicki. “A lot of people know that over the years Michelle is one of the key players on this team, so they’re double and triple teaming her, putting all their players on her. So we have open players. We’ve got to capitalize on that and do the best we can.”

Pluta hit a twisting runner, but both offenses went into a funk for much of the second quarter. Those were the last points until Kate MacLennan picked the pocket of a Saint Mark’s player and drove the length of the floor for two with 3:20 to go. The Pandas would manage just one free throw the rest of the half, however, and Pluta scored six more points to bring the Spartans to within six at the half.

Neither offense was sharp as the third quarter began; the scoring was limited to a single Padua free throw until Pluta hit a bank shot three and a half minutes in. But the Pandas would maintain the suffocating defense, and the Spartans managed just one more field goal in the quarter.

Padua’s offense heated up a bit after that. Kate MacLennan drained a pair of free throws, then stole the Saint Mark’s inbounds pass and hit a short turnaround jumper. Another steal resulted in a Kozicki bucket, and she would hit two more. One came off a steal, the other off another rebound for the La Salle University-bound senior. The Pandas’ run ended at 10, and the lead was 11 headed into the final stanza.

Pluta, who missed the final three and a half minutes of the third quarter after picking up her fourth personal foul, returned at the start of the fourth, but she fouled out just 37 seconds into the quarter. The Pandas took advantage of her absence, building the lead to 22 before the Spartans scored the final nine points of the evening.

It was a satisfying result for the Pandas, who played just their second home game of the season in front of a near-sellout crowd.

“We knew they were undefeated. We knew they wanted to keep that going, and we wanted to end it. We wanted to prove that we have something,” Emmi said.

Kozicki finished with a game-high 17 points and a bunch of rebounds. Emmi had 13 and led the defensive charge, coming up with several steals. The Pandas won their third straight to improve to 5-4 and will take on the state’s top-ranked team, Conrad, on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the 76ers Fieldhouse.

Pluta had 16 to pace Saint Mark’s. The Spartans (10-1) are off until Jan. 23, when they host Ursuline at 7:15 p.m.