A lot of times the opening moments of these games can start that way this time of year. A back-and-forth feeling out process as clubs look to find what works and what doesn't, what the opponents weaknesses are and what they're good at.
York College and La Roche very much fit the mold Friday night at a crowded Charles Wolf Gymnasium inside the Grumbacher Center, until the Spartans figured out how to best capitalize on opportunities in an eventual 76-54 win over La Roche in the opening round of the NCAA D-III tournament.
The Spartans (26-2), ranked No. 10 in D-III by d3hoops.com, move on to the round of 32 with Friday's victory and will next host what looks to be quite a strong opponent in Baldwin Wallace (21-6) on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
TOUGH START: To get there, though, the Capital Athletic Conference champion York first had to move past Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference champ La Roche (23-5) on Friday night. And it wasn't easy in the opening 10 minutes of the contest. First, senior point guard Aja Wallpher went down in a heap on the court at the 15:34 mark of the first half holding her right leg and appearing to have sustained a serious knee injury for a player who has a history of them. The gym quieted down to a near dead silence, only pierced by screams of pain from Wallpher, the team's starting point guard since the beginning of the 2010-11 season.
"My knee locked right when I was catching the ball as I went to jump stop," Wallpher said. "I dislocated that (right) knee cap back in my freshman year of high school. My left knee, which was already taped, that we think it might be a meniscus tear, which there's no time to tend to that right now. And I also had an ACL tear (in high school) in that knee, too."
Wallpher, who is also playing with a sprained right wrist and a sore lower back, thought she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, but ended up walking off the floor on her own and re-entering the game four minutes later.
Meanwhile, York committed 10 turnovers in the first 10:13 of play, mostly caused by La Roche's swarming defensive pressure that got the Spartans back on their heels a bit. It led to La Roche going ahead, 17-16, in what turned out to be its only lead of the game.
"It was one of those teams that made us rush," York coach Betsy Witman said. "We just needed to settle down and play our game."
Directly after Wallpher initially left the game, Witman switched her defense from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone.
"They were penetrating," Witman said of the defensive move. "I knew they had a lot of really good perimeter shooters. We knew that they were probably a little quicker than us and we sort of wanted to pack it in."
The strategy eventually proved to be troublesome for La Roche as the Spartans, after falling behind 17-16, reeled off a 17-0 run over the next seven minutes and later led at half, 39-20.
"I think we just got our heads out of our butts," senior forward Brittany Hicks said of the turnaround. "We just kind of woke up. This is the NCAAs now and we can't be (messing) around with teams anymore. It's one-and-done."
Like many of York's other opponents this season, Hicks and senior forward Kristen Haley proved tough to stop down low. Hicks, a York Catholic grad, finished with a game-high 24 points and 15 rebounds while Haley posted 18 points and eight rebounds. Senior guard Kelsey Murphy (14 points) also had a solid outing, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and finishing inside two other times while also drawing a few fouls to go 4-for-6 at the free-throw line.
AVOIDING THE UPSET: Perhaps more important Friday for the Spartans was getting past the first round and avoid repeating history for the second year in a row. Last season, the Spartans' hopes of returning to the Sweet 16 were dashed when the season came to a close in an upset loss in the semifinals of the CAC tournament, causing York to miss an at-large bid to the big dance.
"We all know that we underachieved last season," Wallpher said. "We knew as a veteran squad we should have done more. And I think that has brought us together. We had some off the court drama and that was all squashed right there. I really think that's what brought us together. And the four of us (seniors) have started since our freshman year. Just going through all these hard games brings us together as a class and a team as a whole."
York is now looking to get back to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years and just the third time in program history (the first came back in 2009).
NEXT ROUND: Baldwin Wallace beat Lebanon Valley (21-7), 66-48, in the other opening round game at York earlier Friday. Baldwin Wallace is making its 12th NCAA Tournament appearance under the guidance of head coach Cheri Harrer. The Yellow Jackets were co-champions of the Ohio Athletic Conference during the regular season.
"I saw a lot of film on them (Baldwin Wallace). I think they're balanced. They have great shooters. They have guards who can shoot off the pass and create their own shot," Witman said. "I actually like how we match up with them than how we did against La Roche. We're used to that type of team. Guard oriented. And they got some size inside. So these easy buckets Kristen and Brit' were getting inside tonight aren't going to come as easy (Saturday). So we might have to play an inside-out type of game (Saturday)."
Reach John Walk at email@example.com.