Westford Academy girls’ basketball team uses early season loss as motivation

When the No. 7 Westford Academy girls’ basketball team traveled to the Wentworth Institute of Technology on Jan. 19 to face Fenway in the Martin Luther King Jr. Invitational, the Grey Ghosts didn’t expect to lose.

What they didn’t know was that the No. 13 Panthers were pretty good, too.

Westford scored first but Fenway answered with a 16-0 run and held on for a 49-47 win.

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“We scored the first basket and I think when we scored that first basket kind of easy, I think the whole team relaxed and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to take these guys, they’re not that good,’ ’’ coach Russ Coward said. “And then they ran out 16 points in a row and everybody who was on the court was pretty much afraid and then suddenly scared.”

For Coward, in his sixth season at Westford, it wasn’t that his team lost to Fenway, it was how it lost.

“Fenway was the toughest, scrappiest team we’ve played. They’re very talented, too. But you know what, that’s the only time this year where we have not matched another team’s aggression on the court. And because we were a little tentative, they came, they took the game from us and they won it,” Coward said.

Coward found a way to turn the loss into a positive, though, and it paid off with seven straight wins before the Grey Ghosts (15-2) lost to Algonquin on the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday.

At the MLK tournament, black tournament shirts that were given to each team and Coward made them a part of the squad. During each game — home or away — Westford carries their shirts as a reminder that every team they face will be a challenge.

“Another reason why we have those shirts is because it makes us realize that there are a lot of good teams out there and if we don’t play to our capabilities we are going to lose and we deserved to lose that game by far. Fenway outplayed us and outcoached us by far.”

Coward took that loss as a lesson for Westford.

“I think that what it showed us was that no team is good enough to just show up and win except for maybe Braintree,” Coward joked. “So I think it was a really good lesson for us and we want to use those shirts as a symbol to say that we’re never going to take anything lightly again and we shouldn’t, we’re not that good.”

Since the loss to Fenway, Westford has improved its approach to each game.

“We’ve had a couple of games where we’ve had that lapse again but I think that we’ve haven’t had as many lapses as we’ve had since that Fenway game,” Coward said. “Before Fenway, we usually had two quarters where we were way too relaxed and since then I think our overall intensity and focus is better.”

Westford is not the same team that lost to Central Catholic in the Division 1 North final last season. Because of some personnel changes, the Grey Ghosts are a faster squad.

“We’re a lot faster than we were last year. It’s been an adjustment for all of us because last year we were a big, strong kind of bruiser team. This year we kind of a little more finesse and a little bit quicker,” Coward said.

Because the Grey Ghosts are not as big in the post, they don’t try to force the ball into their 1,000-point scorer, Samantha Hyslip, as much as they used to. Now, they count on their sophomore point guard Karly Bigham to attack on the break.

“That was one of the question marks coming in for us and Karly honestly played even better than we hoped she would play,” Coward said. “She really has developed into a great passer and actually quite a good attacker. She’s one of the best to get to the rim on our team, actually.”

With the end of the season nearing, Coward doesn’t expect his team to run the table. However, he expects his team to continue to play its best. It’ll have to in the Comcast tournament Feb. 15-16, which includes No.1 Medfield, No. 2 Braintree, and No. 18 Archbishop Williams.

“It’s not important to win [the tournament]. To me, it’s important to be playing well. We played in the tournament four yeas ago, we beat Archbishop in the first round and then lost a close game to Central [Catholic] in the second and I was very happy because I thought it really got us ready for the state tournament.”

While a win will be big for Westford, Coward knows that the important wins will come in the state tournament.

“Honestly, I’d be happy to lose both [Comcast] games by a lot of points if it meant that we win one extra game in the state tournament.”

Game of the week

No. 1 Medfield at No. 6 St. Mary’s, Thursday, 6:30 p.m. — Has Medfield’s dominance this season been because of its strength of schedule? We will find out when the undefeated the Big Blue travels to Lynn to face St. Mary’s Big Three: Brianna Rudolph, Jennie Mucciarone, and Sharell Sanders. This will be Medfield’s biggest test of the season.