On paper, there wasn’t a whole lot riding on the regular-season finale for both the American Studies girls basketball team and their counterparts at Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy.
The Senators cruised into the game boasting one of the top players on the circuit in Emily Eljamal, and were looking for a victory to simply enhance their seeding status for the Public School Athletic League playoffs.
RKA, on the other hand, was looking to put one final touch on a season that head coach Will Cushing thought had all the earmarks of a rebuilding year, but one that turned into a nine-victory regular season and an unexpected postseason berth.
And while American Studies emerged with a gritty 32-31 win and did all it could to strengthen its resume for the playoffs, the Senators lost the services of junior Jacqueline Harari, who suffered a knee injury midway through the first quarter.
Harari’s loss would deal a major blow to the Senators, according to head coach Ryan Hondorf as she is one of the few upperclassmen on a roster dotted with nine freshmen and sophomores.
RKA was up 6-5 in the early portion of the first quarter when Harari suddenly crumpled to the floor, grabbed her knee, and cried out in pain. She was on the floor for several minutes before Hondorf helped his injured guard up. Ever the gamer, Harari tried to put weight on her right knee several times on the sidelines, each time was forced to abandon that plan. She later had her leg and knee wrapped and was scheduled to visit the hospital to get a diagnosis after the game. No one in a Senators uniform cared much about the win after the game, only about the extent of their teammate’s injury.
“It’s going to be rough losing her if she can’t play,” said Eljamal, who posted a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds in the victory. “She started every single game for us this year, so there are going to have to be adjustments we’re going to have to make if we’re going to win (in the playoffs). This is very tough right now.”
The two rivals first met Jan. 4 when American Studies rolled to a 68-31 victory. But this time around, it was a considerably closer contest from start to finish. There were two reasons for that — the loss of Harari for the Senators and a change in defensive philosophy for RKA.
“What I thought we did a much better job on today was we kept a much closer eye on Emily,” Cushing said. “We put more of a focus on Emily on the defensive end of things because she went for 41 (points) against us last time. She’s so crafty in the middle, finding those little spaces, that I put a little extra bit of attention on her defensively.”
The two teams were deadlocked at 16 at halftime and when RKA honored one of its past greats, Shadai Plowden, by retiring her No. 14 uniform, it seemed to juice the Lady Tigers, who outscored the Senators 9-4 in the third quarter to take a 25-20 lead into the final period.
But a free throw by Eljamal with 2:51 to play tied the game at 25. And when Eljamal added a three-point play just seconds later, American Studies had the lead for good.
RKA did have one final chance to win the game in the final moments, but a short jumper by senior Lia Genao Ramirez bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded, and the Senators held on.
Afterward, it was an odd contrast as a somber Senators squad packed up their things while Cushing talked about silver linings for his Lady Tigers.
“At the end I had my senior co-captain from about 14 feet with a good look at the hoop take a shot that she practices every day,” Cushing said. “It just didn’t go down, but I can live with that. It was exciting to think we had a chance to win it at the buzzer. To go from losing by 35 a month ago to this, for me, says a lot about the growth of this group. I’m really proud of them.”
American Studies was scheduled to host Harlem Village in a first-round playoff game Feb. 11. If the Senators advanced, they would visit Inwood Academy in a second-round game Feb. 13.
RKA was slated to meet Julia Richman in its playoff opener Feb. 11. If the Lady Tigers advanced, they would hit the road to take on Democracy Prep on Feb. 13.